Last Call in the City of Bridges by Salvatore Pane
(Braddock Avenue Books, November 2012)
Review by Shannon Reed
Uncommon Books, Uncommon Readers
A believable narrative voice is an aspect of writing a novel that proves most tricky for new writers. It’s exceedingly difficult to find the voice of who (or what) will narrate your novel and then, having found it, to keep that voice consistent and engrossing throughout many pages. In his first novel, Last Call in the City of Bridges, Salvatore Pane has found, and consistently written in, the voice of a memorable narrator: his protagonist, Michael Bishop.
Bishop’s voice – young (age 25), whiny, self-conscious but less self-aware than he thinks – pops off the page. Pane begins his story in the recent past, on the November night in 2008, when President Obama was elected for the first time. At a bar, Bishop encounters his ex-girlfriend, Ivy Chase, “her girl-next-door grin full of dimples and big teeth.” He then recounts the tale of their brief romance as well as the story of their gang of friends who splintered apart around the same time. The extended flashback forms the bulk of the book.
For many Hot Metal Bridge readers, the setting of Pane’s novel will be reason enough to read it, as he’s chosen to usePittsburgh as his milieu. Many local hang-outs are here: the Cathedral of Learning, as the book references Bishop’s transition from a freshman sitting in Seminar in Composition to a grad student teaching it; the freshmen dorms where Bishop and his best friends Sloan and Oz hang out; local bars, including the Library; even the suburban enclave of Dormont, where Ivy and her family live. As a new resident in this area, it was fun to read about places I’ve been getting to know. Pane kept me interested even when the setting was inScranton, Bishop’s hometown, and a place I have only passing familiarity with. The ability to locate the book so strongly in a real environment is one of its strengths.
Less strong is the sense of time. Pane has chosen a very specific era for the events of his book to unfold. Choosing the Mid-Aughts (roughly 2004 – mid-2008) is a great decision, and I enjoyed reading about an era that I can clearly recall. Pane doesn’t shy away from including the myriad ways people communicated during this time, including Facebook, email and Twitter; in fact, a section in which Bishop and his childhood best friend IM each other over AOL was downright nostalgic for me. However, a bit more research would have helped. He has characters watching Hulu and using iPhones in late 2007/early 2008. These products were not ubiquitous then, and it’s doubtful that struggling writers in Pittsburgh could have afforded them. The book is also long, and could have used some trimming. An egregious chapter on Kayne West, completely untied to the rest of the narrative, comes to mind.
My biggest issue with the novel was the protagonist Michael Bishop himself. While his voice is remarkably vivid, it is highly unlikeable, and far overshadows the less carefully wrought characters in the book.. Bishop’s selfishness and self-interest border on the pathological. He is always slightly condescending about everyone else he introduces us to, making his insecurity and unease in the world very clear. Perhaps this is most noticeable when Bishop confronts Ivy over her religion, which she seems to sincerely believe and find comfort in. “Didn’t she know you weren’t supposed to have these conversations past your freshman year of college?” Bishop asks, and then later, he tells her, “’This makes me think a lot less of you…I used to think you were really intelligent.’”
Later, readers do learn a little bit more about Bishop’s specific hostility towards organized religion, the genesis of which is in a childhood trauma that has left him yearning for closure. Also, I’m eager to make it clear that “likeability” is not the only characteristic I look for in a protagonist. Still, with all of that said, Bishop is an extremely off-putting narrator, one that I had a great deal of trouble caring about. Frankly, what he most seems to need is to grow up a bit. Spending the entire book seeing everything only from his narrow perspective, left me feeling that my view was insufficiently broad to appreciate the world Pane created. I felt that I had spent several hours gazing into someone else’s navel.
Last Call in the City of Bridges is the first book from Braddock Avenue Books, a new publishing company located in Pittsburgh. Their slogan, “Uncommon Books, Uncommon Readers” is a winning one, and they’re to be commended, both for beginning a traditional publishing house, and for publishing the work of an unknown, talented writer who’s still learning. The book itself is a lovely object – well-designed, remarkably free from proofreading errors, and incorporating the comic strips and online musings of the protagonist. Here’s to more from both Pane and Braddock Avenue Books!
Shannon Reed is a MFA in Creative Writing: Fiction candidate and TA at the
University of Pittsburgh. She’s written reviews for Publisher’s Weekly
since 2003, and her first book will be published by McGraw-Hill in fall of