I approached Alexander C. Irvine’s third novel The Narrows with great anticipation. Its central conceit appeared to be the perfect marriage between the sub-genres of urban fantasy and secret history: during World War II, golems are being clandestinely created by kabbalistic magic on a Detroit assembly line to fight the Nazis. Golems versus Nazis! Such an overt metaphor for good versus evil had me expecting an epic battle on the streets of Detroit.
But clearly, Irvine does not share my enthusiasm, since The Narrows’ central story is not about good versus evil, or even about golems versus Nazis, but about the domestic hardships endured by 28-year-old Jared Cleaves in wartime, racially-charged Detroit. Cleaves, thanks to two paralyzed fingers that keep him off the Tunisia front lines and “an affinity for the mystical,” (p7) serves his nation by breaking up clay on the second-shift golem assembly line. The long hours are causing his marriage to crumble and his morale to weaken, and as a result he’s driven by a need to “be able to tell his daughter Emily that his service to the free world involved more than troweling clay” (p23). So when the Draft Marshal invites Jared to the Office of Esoteric Investigations (OEI), it is with some eagerness that he becomes embroiled in espionage activities, replete with cat-and-mouse games between Nazi secret agents and Indian shape shifters.
Unfortunately, for me Irvine's story takes an irredeemable misstep when it becomes clear that Jared’s fate is inextricably tied to the appearance of a mythical, well-endowed, naked, red-skinned dwarf with burning hair. It seems that throughout Detroit’s history, the appearance of this diminutive creature has set in motion “chains of events that have until now played out to cause serious damage to the city” (p222). Jared, at five years of age, was the last of the city's citizens to witness the dwarf. He escaped his bizarre experience with merely two severed nerves on his hand—but could Jared’s youthful encounter with the dwarf have repercussions for wartime Detroit? In a city where the magic of golems, frost giants, and shape-changing birds is being harnessed to fight the war, the OEI seems to think so.
Enjoyment of The Narrows will depend upon one's reaction to the recurring manifestations of this red-haired creature. I can appreciate the idea of a city’s history having a symbiotic relationship with a supernatural figure, but not when that figure is as absurd as this dwarf. In one exchange, Jared says to the dwarf, “I’m going to hunt your scorched ass down and tie your balls around your neck.” The dwarf responds, “I’ll do it for you” (p279). And then proceeds to do so. It's one of the most outrageous, gratuitous pieces of invention since the Devil's child, an oversexed youth in perpetual arousal, showed up in Clive Barker’s Coldheart Canyon. Sure, I could be misreading Irvine’s intentions with the dwarf—he may be purely a satirical figure, or a metaphor for the absurdities of war—but his presence hindered my enjoyment of The Narrows, and had me wishing again that Irvine gave more priority to the golems.
All things considered, however, The Narrows is not without its rewards. Written in the third person and told entirely from Jared’s perspective, the novel portrays the streets of Detroit as a veritable hotbed of supernatural activity. Irvine captures the social fabric of wartime Detroit and has a gift for integrating the fantastic with the ordinary. I liked the way Irvine incorporated the golems into the periphery of newsreels; the way frost giants became a part of provincial myth; and the way a dragon (yes, a dragon!) intersects with the Detroit race riots to play a key role in the apocalyptic finale.
But these are just building blocks of wonder. And however smartly they are integrated with ordinary Detroit locations—like factories, waterfront bars, and dilapidated apartment complexes—a love of character is still needed to make a story live. How is a reader supposed to love, or even be interested in, Jared, a selfish, self-pitying, negligent father? Irvine would have you believe that Jared loves his two-year-old daughter and his wife Colleen, and that “Jared Cleaves did what he could” (p341) for his family. I beg to differ: Jared’s true motivation is not the preservation of family but a lust for adventure. When his wife's and daughter's lives are threatened and his own put in peril, Jared reveals his true colors: “It was like being scared to death by Suspense or Lights Out; he loved it. This was living. This was what he was meant to do” (p 231). When the main viewpoint character treats life like a radio drama, it's hard for the reader to feel genuine suspense.
If you can accept the dwarf and forgive Jared Cleaves his trespasses, The Narrows may be the novel of the year for you; despite its flaws, it should not be dismissed. But me, I’m still waiting for that novel about golems versus Nazis.
Kelly Shaw has lived in Milwaukee, WI, for his entire life, so he reads a lot of books and watches a lot of movies. Sometimes he tries to write.
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