Set in Ball’s dystopian City, society’s enduring ills are portrayed in a novel seething with the disparate agendas of a population grown ever more polarized, prejudices cemented in like-minded neighborhoods. In a ruined landscape awash in debris and hopelessness, all has been reduced to an “us and them” mentality, whether in the increasingly hysterical ranting of Godtown’s Prosper Maddox and his obsession with the End of Days prophecy or the much-maligned Community, a loose but defined area where the exclusively black population is exploring separate governance and a redefinition of freedom.
While Father Wome taps into the ancient superstitions of his followers, a small group of avowed communists has attracted the attention of fanatical religious groups and racist sympathizers who would seize any excuse to destroy the Community and its delusions of separate identity. Between politics, religion and racial animus, the atmosphere fairly crackles with the rage and violence of hopeless men either preparing for End of Days or the oblivion of excess, whether through violence, drugs, or both.
The catalyst for destruction is the dead body of a white woman on the edges of the Community. Journalist Frank Frings of the Gazette calls in a favor, rousting Detective Piet Westermann with a request from black leaders in the Community to move the body before the obvious conclusions are drawn. That the woman is a prostitute possibly infected with a communicable disease is insignificant by the time a second and third body appear in the same condition as the first. Violence is brewing, and any excuse will do for suspicious men with a simmering dissatisfaction that requires venting.
Through the unlikely union of Frings, Westermann and the communist sympathizers in the Community, efforts to alleviate a coming disaster run aground on the usual volatile mix of politics, religion, racism and intolerance. Dystopian or not, Ball distills the essence of society’s most destructive instincts on a fatalistic collision with those of opposing views.
The ambiance of the novel is oppressive: a wet, debilitating heat; the frayed tempers and drunken rants of unhappy men; religious fanaticism in the ranks of the police; and the glory of brutal attacks against the perceived enemies lurking in the Community: “History is written by the victors and news is written by the powerful.” While Frings is upstaged by an ambitious and fanatical young reporter, Westermann seems to lose focus in proportion to the secrets he uncovers in a deeply troubling investigation. In the end, political power and force dominate any attempt at the improvement of the black folks’ chronic and systematic destruction, religious conviction and fear of damnation providing an army of true believers.
Equally depressing and riveting, Ball channels Orwellian nightmares with a Darwinian kicker. Somewhere a warning bell has rung, but it is ignored in a maelstrom of outraged humanity with a need to even the score, any score: “What happened in the City: Grace was devoured by brutishness, utopias by the ignorant.”