Stewart O’Nan’s 16th Novel: An Underground Jerusalem Thriller

City of Secrets, Stewart O’Nan (Viking, 2016, 194 pages)

Militant Zionists bombed the King David Hotel in 1946 and killed 91 people. This terrorist attack occurs again in the lives of Stewart O’Nan’s characters, all Holocaust survivors and underground rebels operating in the British Crown’s Palestine. City of Secrets is a literary thriller, a fast but thoughtful read about survivor guilt, post-World War II Jerusalem, and the intoxication of violence.

O’Nan, a skilled storyteller with fifteen previous novels, won the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society’s first novel prize in 1992. Rosemary James (publisher of The Double Dealer) introduced me to O’Nan’s City of Secrets, and I’m compelled to share her recommendation. O’Nan builds suspense from the first page and carefully weaves the reader from past to present and back again.

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Memories of the dead live on affecting the present. Ghosts of Brand’s wife and family members lurk in his mind as silently and destructively as the Haganah and Irgun rebels work in the shadows of the ancient city. Brand “wanted the revolution—like the world—to be innocent, when it had never been.” He lived through internment as a prisoner mechanic, spared by both the Nazis and the Russians, because they said “he can fix anything.” He “knows the truth,” but decides suicide cannot fix his pain.

Brand saw his wife murdered and speaks to her still. She watches him sleep with Eva, a compatriot and prostitute. As he drives sandy streets and feels the Mediterranean breeze, Brand considers this new life: “It was a kind of cowardice he would never understand, though he was guilty of it himself. How did you kill and still call yourself righteous? How did you live when you let the people you loved die?”

With the war over, survival now depends on trusting the mixed messages and clandestine codes of an insurgency network that supplied Brand an alias (“Jossi”) and a taxi. Jossi drives his taxi, steering the reader and tourists around the city, introducing foreigners to Jerusalem, “a puzzle box built of symbols, a confusion of old and new, armored cars and donkeys in the streets, Bedouins and bankers.”

Like a low-level insurgent, the reader never knows more than what’s necessary to keep reading, to keep driving, keep trusting in the hope of learning how to survive. Such trust requires Brand to accept lethal orders from the unknown, courier weapons and spies through checkpoint searches. Leaders speak in propaganda, be they leading insurgents or occupying forces. He becomes a hero of a train stickup, not from action but from agreed-upon perception, by “barking” commands with the “familiar intonation” learned from years in killing camps.

City of Secrets reads with the speed of an action flick that matters. Brand must decide who to trust as he grapples with life after the Holocaust. Feeling expendable to the secret cause, he learns that only he can live up to his memories of lost loved ones and that true survival requires an open faith.

–Alex B. Johnson, Faulkner House Books

Literary Events this Weekend!

This Saturday from 2-3pm at Faulkner House Books, we will be hosting the author Kevin Sessums, who will be signing his new book I Left it on the Mountain, which is the followup to his best-selling memoir Mississippi Sissy. Publisher’s Weekly writes of the book:

Sessums chronicles his career as a prominent celebrity writer for Vanity Fair, Interview, and Parade, rubbing elbows with Andy Warhol and interviewing Madonna and Courtney Love before falling into methamphetamine addiction. Interludes throughout the primary narrative detail Sessums’s love of extreme travel: he’s climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and walked the famed El Camino Santiago across Spain. However, his love of other extremes—in sex and drugs—seeps into his sparkling career.

Read the rest of the review here, and join us tomorrow to pick up a copy of the book and meet the author! As always, we’re at 624 Pirate’s Alley in the French Quarter.

And this Sunday, March 15, from 2-4:30pm, the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society will be co-sponsoring a celebration of the launch of Randy Fertel‘s new book, A Taste of Chaos: The Art of Literary Improvisation, at the Cabildo in Jackson Square. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins says of the book,

A Taste for Chaos provides a sweeping view of the complex history of the notion of artistic spontaneity. Packed with erudition and references ranging from Lucretius to James Brown, and written with reader-friendly clarity, Fertel’s book is a lively examination of the centuries-old debate between the improvisers and the deliberators. This detailed labor of love deserves its place on any serious bookshelf devoted to literary study or the history of ideas.

Randy will give us his own take on improvisation, which he sees as at the very heart of literature. There will be wine, refreshments, and books available for sale. This is a free event, but please RSVP to faulkhouse@aol.com so we have enough wine for everyone!