The Messiness of Human Connection:
A review of Last Call in the City of Bridges
Wherever you are as you’re reading this sentence, and no matter what else you have to do today, you need to multitask immediately over to Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com and order a novel called Last Call in the City of Bridges, by Salvatore Pane. Why? Because the book will touch your heart indelibly, its characters will live in your mind forever, and you are going to be engaged in a way that hasn’t happened to you often enough.
This novel got its emotional teeth into me within the first ten pages, refusing to free me even at the end, leaving me with the searching need to read more. So I turned back to page one and began to read it all over again, just to enjoy how it grows and grows and grows.
This is a novel that describes a generational milieu subsumed hopelessly in the digital, from video games and cell phones to YouTube and Facebook. But these are background rather than soul, and indeed a novel with thus much heart must find its soul elsewhere.
And so let me tell you about the two leading characters, these lovers, Michael Bishop and Ivy Chase.
Michal is sympathetic, plucky, insecure, sarcastic, decent to a fault, and utterly deserving. He’s the kind of character I might resent just a little bit for being a far better person than I am. Michael’s primary motivation—sometimes consciously, sometimes not—is his guilt over not being able to do enough for others. It’s not unusual for him to respond to the general pain of the world with a reflection such as, “I so wanted to be of use to someone, anyone.”
And what can we say of Ivy Chase? She’s the kind of alluringly zaftig and thoroughly earnest girl whom you fall in love with if you’re an ironical but secretly sincere kind of guy, and the kind of straightforward and loyal girl you become best friends with if you’re another straightforward and loyal girl. Rough-edged guys and disloyal friends need not apply. Does Ivy have faults? She’s not one of the messed up people in the novel. (More about them soon.) No, she’s the kind of person who messes others up, but only because she’s trying to help them.
Readers will react to all of this appropriately, as though she were a real person. But because this is a novel, she won’t mess you up disproportionately.
The action is about Michael and Ivy and their friends, a set of Pittsburghers trying to make sense of the shifting pixels of reality in the digital age.
Michael’s roommate is the reclusive Oz, whose attempts to discover the significant in the insignificant lead him down the post-post-modern rabbit hole that, in his grandparents’ 1960s, was quaintly known as “dropping out.”
Then we have Noah, who is too immature to commit to his girlfriend, Sloan, who is too mature to care.
Hovering over Michael’s consciousness and conscience is the memory of Keith Tedesco, a closeted gay high school friend who committed suicide. Michael is guilt-stricken for years for failing to save him.
In the rapid collision of the plot, all of this is a lot more dynamic and engaging than these summaries may suggest. The people in the book create love triangles and quadrangles that expose more character traits than genitals. The dialogue is sharp, smart, and revealing. Pane’s novelistic skills are red-hot, his plot wholly compelling. He uses mystery and emotion so effectively that you quickly forget your real life, coming back into the world only when you’re facing the blank space after the final sentence.
Michael Bishop is not as enthralled with his life as you will be. After a night of being disappointed, once again, by the frailties of his friends, he tells us, “I slugged back the whiskey and stumbled out to my car, imagining myself ascending to Godzilla-like proportions, using my atomic breath to blow everything terrible about this dumb fucking generation to dust.”
This is, intentionally, a generational novel. As such, it keeps a good trotter’s pace next to Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, Kerouac’s On the Road, McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, and Ellis’s Less Than Zero, as well as outrunning a Pittsburgher cousin, Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Pane displays all of Fitzgerald’s emotion without any of his sentimentality, all of Kerouac’s energy without any of his raggedness, all of McInerney’s sophistication without any of his gimmicky second-person voice, all of Ellis’s hipness without any of his decadence, and all of Chabon’s playfulness without any of his constricting irony.
The book aspires to social commentary, exploring the purportedly soul-killing effects of digital life. The devices and their moods are inscribed here for all time, but they are not yet dated. With one exception: The Facebook wall that Pane keeps referencing has already been replaced by the Facebook Timeline. The former was a third-person world while the latter is first-person, as though the falsehood of intimacy were increasing. On the old wall I might have written, “Robert Clark Young is enjoying a great novel by Salvatore Pane”; on Timeline it is simply “I’m enjoying a great novel by Salvatore Pane.” Same worthy difference.
What’s ironic about this digital novel is that, to my knowledge, it doesn’t yet exist in digital form, only as . . . paper. This contrast is disorienting, but ultimately liberating: I didn’t have to worry about the battery dying while reading this, or about spilling a $1400 cup of coffee across my keyboard (an event that ruined my summer). It was pure freedom to eat and drink as much as I wanted all over this book, like a free old-fashioned slob, and to drop the book and to bend it as I read. This is an organic, connected experience, one that goes against the novel’s theme of digital dissociation.
At the climax, one of the alienated young men asks Michael Bishop, “After everything that’s happened with you and Ivy and Sloan and Noah, after all the crap in your web comic about how the internet and video games have reduced us to robots, do you really think a genuinely good and positive human connection is still possible?”
Well, let me tell you: As a person who remembers struggling with friendships and relationships back in the Pleistocene Era—which is to say, back in the pre-digital world of the 1980s—I would strongly advise the characters in this novel not to blame—or to credit—their digital units instead of their all-too-human hearts.
What Michael Bishop is only beginning to understand, by the final page, is that he has orchestrated none of his struggles in this world, and he is not responsible for the struggles of his friends. He’s still too young to comprehend that what he’s going through is neither technological numbness nor moral failure. His experiences are nothing more or less than the existential grief that will arrive, sooner than later, to upend us all. He’s too green to realize that what he’s been suffering is only—and thoroughly—the human condition.
There is an ancient truism in book reviewing that says that once the critics start draping the term “the human condition” around your work, you’re home-free as a writer. The people in Last Call in the City of Bridges may not be home-free, but the writer who has animated and anointed and aggravated and archived them certainly is. This is Salvatore Pane’s good fortune, as well as our own.
Now order this superb novel, turn off the computer, and go live your messy life.