In The City Where We Once Lived, we never learn of which city Eric Barnes writes. In its post-apocalyptic state, it could be San Francisco after the big one. With its rampant flooding, it could be post-Katrina New Orleans. With its clear line of delineation between the haves and have-nots, it could be Memphis.
The North Side of the city, divided from the South Side by a highway with a single overpass as egress between the two, is long neglected and blighted. Something has eroded the North, leaving it seemingly uninhabitable, and we're only given hints as to what that something might be. Those who remain do so by choice, living wherever they choose. Our protagonist, who remains unnamed throughout, lives alone in a high-rise hotel. We see the North Side through his eyes from his lofty perch and as he wanders around the barren and desolate streets. Over time, we come to know his tragic story, but the information is parceled out by Barnes who is in no hurry to tell his tale.
Where his previous novel, Something Pretty, Something Beautiful (he's also the author of the novel Shimmer) is all movement and adrenaline, The City is subdued, quiet and unsuspecting. The quiet, though, is punctuated by head-spinning action. A character asks, "What is your capacity for violence?" Barnes has a voice for violence and a heart of compassion, and the human element of his story is in neighbor helping neighbor. There is a dizzying moment of chaos followed by a beautiful moment when the citizens of the North End come together to help those from the South.
It doesn't matter the city because its inhabitants' behavior is universal. The North End is a land of sameness, of routine, and this may be the truest element of any post-apocalyptic story. How many of us, faced with the end of civilization as we know it, would take to the road to search out like-minded societies or create such a society ourselves? Who would fight zombies to the death while foraging for a cure? Not many, I suspect. Instead, we might be more apt to surrender and lie down on a sofa under the cover of blankets. And that's just what the hero wants to do here. His memories weigh him down, yet he goes to work every day to put out a newspaper for the North Side. Maybe it's the momentum of routine that will keep us alive come the end of days. In his wanderings around the city, researching the history of long-empty buildings and grim neighborhoods, he comes across people in the same situation — a woman working at the water pumping station, a security guard at the abandoned airport. The people of the North End keep doing what they've always done because, dystopia or not, everyone needs a purpose.
Though the city and characters remain nameless — the woman and the boy, the preacher, the gardener, the pressman — there is a lot going on here: climate change, industrialized pollution, man-made flooding. There is also the possibility that this isn't an isolated case, but that it's happening in communities worldwide. But maybe Barnes is making a simpler statement. He writes, "The South End is the suburbs to the North End. The sprawling, senseless suburbs that will also someday be abandoned. You can't build places of substance and duration only as an antidote to what you have for so long neglected."
We learn that, as the problems with the North End became apparent, the citizens and politicians gave up on it and escaped to the south. As a result, the South End is overcrowded, congested with traffic, and a place where "surfaces of everything are like plastic, the neighborhoods finished along sharp lines and dull curves that are repeated, again and again, on every house, every block, every subdivision for many miles."
Barnes doesn't name his city because this is every major metropolitan city in America dealing with sprawl and neglect and blight and a citizenry far too accommodating of the easy way out. Our man in the North End doesn't take the easy way out, and, in the end, it's a life worth fighting for.
Eric Barnes signs The City Where We Once Lived at Crosstown Arts, Saturday, April 14th, 6 p.m. Benefiting Overton Park Conservancy.