Ben’s Review: “Last Call in the City of Bridges” by Salvatore Pane

Last Call in the City of Bridges is the upcoming first novel by Salvatore Pane. In many ways, the novel treads familiar territory. The story of a young adult making sense of the world he has inherited is a common trope in fiction. But this is a novel that transcends the trope. In many important ways Last Call in the City of Bridges feels both fresh and absolutely vital.

Michael Bishop is twenty-five and lives in Pittsburgh. He grew up, like so many of his generation, with a secret certainty that he was destined for greatness, preordained to change the world. But now he finds himself subtitling DVDs for a living, sharing a house with a disenfranchised graduate student, and unhappy with almost every aspect of his life. Like many, he finds solace in the digital world, compulsively updating his Facebook page, surfing YouTube, updating his web comic, and spending hours and hours in front of a Nintendo Entertainment System, reliving the important games of his childhood.

Early in the book, Michael makes a startling claim about the defining moment of his generation. Earlier generations, he says, had clear historical touchstones to define them–D-Day, the Kennedy assassination, Woodstock, the Challenger explosion. Michael suggests that, even more than 9/11, his generation is defined by the advent of Facebook. Facebook, he says, is the source of a uniquely 21st century narcissism. On Facebook, everyone is made important. Everything one does has significance, even if that significance is an illusion. Facebook was also the catalyst for a strange new immortality–everything one puts online about could ostensibly last forever. These digital ghosts, as Michael call them, will persist long after we are gone. Michael and the other characters in the novel are haunted by the very thing they live for, isolated by what is meant to connect them.

Indeed, social media and internet saturation define each of the characters in important ways. Oz, Michael’s depressed roommate, spends his time trying to justify the digital as a legitimate focus for his graduate work. Noah, another friend, posts instructional basketball videos for kids. Sloan, Michael’s friend and one-time lover, hosts a series of YouTube videos that showcase nothing more than her counting to 250,000 out loud. Irony saturates their interactions with the world. No one displays their true internal selves, partly, I believe, because they don’t know who they actually are. Michael certainly does not. This anxiety and search for meaning serves as the novel’s primary narrative force.

One of the greatest strengths of the novel is the voice of Michael Bishop. He’s arrogant, insecure, often insufferable, but there is a genuine intelligence and emotional depth to him. He is a protagonist who is at once able to clearly articulate the painful eccentricities of his generation, while also being firmly participant in them. He guides us through this story with startling clarity. A few of the secondary characters bled together, but I didn’t mind because Michael’s progression is so well-draw.

It’s easy to compare Last Call in the City of Bridges to other novels with similar concerns like The Catcher in the Rye and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. But I think in this case those comparisons don’t tell the whole story. While those are fine novels that I have enjoyed, read in the current context they always feel like artifacts to me. By contrast, Last Call in the City of Bridges is an uncomfortably clear reflection of a world I have lived in and understand.

Michael Bishop finds metaphors in the NES version of Ducktales and measures his interactions with women against Han Solo and Princess Leia. But this referential saturation never once feels false or exploitative. It feels absolutely true, which also makes it sort of sad. I recognize so much of my own experience and feelings about my generation in the novel, but I needed a writer like Pane to articulate them, to reflect them back at me. I was ultimately uplifted by Michael’s conclusions about his fate in the world where irony rules, posturing is default, and the desire for connecting to another human being is the source of our most potent and devastating longing. It’s the best depiction of my generation that I’ve come across in fiction.

Last Call in the City of Bridges gets five pieces of lasagna. It will be available this November from Braddock Avenue Books. I highly encourage you to check out the book trailer here.

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