Among the plunks and groans of unfamiliar apartments and early-waking joggers in Central Park, it is the middle of February in New York City. People who consumed too much alcohol the night before roll over in bed and wonder about the identity of the person next to them. As the snow dusts the streets in Manhattan, author Ian Mackenzie deftly portrays the pieces of a broken marriage in a lonely, sometimes violent city.
City of Strangers is the debut novel of Mackenzie, a Boston native and former public high school teacher. The novel begins with a quiet description of an early Sunday morning on the streets of New York. Paul Metzger arrives at the home of his half-brother, Ben, to ask if he will come to the hospital to visit their father, who is dying. The brothers are not close; Ben hates his father, whom he believes has a wicked heart and a sick mind.
Frank Metzger, their father, was an infamous Nazi sympathizer during the war (the real-life inspiration for his character was a man of the 1930s named George Sylvester Viereck, a budding poet who took an interest in the German cause in WWII). Paul has been offered a lucrative sum to write a book about his father. Ben Wald, on the other hand, goes to great lengths to distance himself from his father, including changing his name and converting to Judaism. At sixty, he’s come under investigation for insider trading; he considers the rejection of his father to be a moral renunciation. Unable to persuade his brother to come to the hospital, Paul turns to his ex-wife for comfort and companionship.
On the way home from his ex-wife’s apartment, as he approaches his own building, Paul witnesses the beating of a teenager who is obviously of Middle Eastern descent. Paul, who has never been in a fight, realizes he must intercede. When reasoning fails, a brawl ensues. A last-minute stab with a piece of broken glass saves Paul from being crushed. The offenders flee the scene, except for one: Terrence, who begins to stalk Paul throughout the city.
Mackenzie would have us believe that cruelty is a part of every masculine life. Paul, who has never fought, summons the energy to defend, “something surges through Paul like electricity: the key feels hot in his hand, tight between the knuckles. Talk is useless, he throws a punch…” With males who display physicality and females who embody moral judgment, the story would benefit from much deeper character development. Paul is a decent person who drinks a little too much and fails at marriage, but we never really understand what motivates him. Like the alienated protagonist of Camus’ The Stranger, Paul is psychologically detached from the world around him. He doesn’t have a real relationship with either Ben or Claire.
Mackenzie is a gifted storyteller whose descriptive writing, crisp dialogue and edgy plot keep City of Strangers moving along at a satisfying pace. The author makes use of the contrasting worlds between Manhattan and Brooklyn that add essential elements to the plot that help explain why Paul is a loner. This is a small book with a big story to tell.