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A New York State of Mind

Nancy Sundstrom - April 1st, 2004
Readers worldwide have had a longstanding love affair with books about New York City, a trend that has shown no sign of diminishing in the recent years, thanks largely to the works of gifted authors like Don DeLilo, Richard Price and Tom Wolfe, to name just a few.
Another in this distinguished lineup of usual suspects in Kurt Wenzel, whose ‘s second novel, “Gotham Tragic,“ is wonderful, witty and wise as a spot-on send-up of post-9/11 life in the Big Apple. Wenzel, a contributing editor at who lives in both New York City and East Hampton, New York, wrote “Lit Life“ in 2001, and this new foray is something of a sequel to that first novel.
Here, we‘re reintroduced to Gen-X writer Kyle Clayton, who hit fame with his debut novel and has run into a creative dry spell since. He has also recently converted to Islam to please the Turkish girlfriend he wants to marry. He‘s not doing well at incorporating his new beliefs into his big city lifestyle and penchant for its weaknesses, particularly when it comes to alcohol consumption. A case in point is that he is a regular customer at City, a hot new restaurant that employs a Muslim Mafia of doormen and food runners who are determined to help Clayton abide by Islamic asceticism, whether he wants to or not.
In the first chapter, “The Great Kurban,“ we meet Kyle and get a quick glimpse into his world, which is becoming increasingly complicated with the conflicts posed by culture clash:

“All Muslims are mad, of course. Not mad in the sense of angry, though they are certainly that, but daffy mad, glazed-eyed-crazy-stare mad, ipso facto mad.. . .
Slunk down in the back of the cab, rain rapping its knuckles on the roof, Kyle Clayton heard these lines turning over in his head. This was the opening to the novel he was working on, and since he was prone to fits of anxiety over new work, he often found the words brimming at the surface of his subconscious.
Plus, he was fond of them. They had just the snap, crackle, and pop that he liked. The culture had turned into a bum‘s rush, he‘d decided. You had to catch the reader early, kick ‘em in the shins, or else they were gone, off to a new thrill. As the downpour beaded the window, he allowed himself a smile as he repeated the words once more, marveling at their reckless audacity, the sheer stupid nerve of them.
All Muslims are mad, of course.
Ridiculous, those words. Mere literary provocation.
Hurrying from the taxi to the shield of the restaurant‘s canopy, Kyle was greeted by a large man in a long gray coat, shoulders clad in royal epaulets. As Kyle hopped the sluicing moat that ran along the curb, the doorman lowered his umbrella and mutely clapped his gloved hands.
“Mr. Kurban,“ he bellowed, half surprised. “The Great Kurban!“ Syeed Salaam was the doorman‘s name, and he did not refer to Kyle Clayton as the Great Kurban because he thought the young man anything special -- only Allah was truly great -- but rather because there are few things in this world more glorious to a Muslim than the presence of a willing convert, and however unlikely, Kyle Clayton was now one such proselyte. This conversion was the cause of no little humor among his friends, since of everyone they knew, no one was quite so Western, so quintessentially American, as Kyle Clayton. Kurban (chosen primarily for alliterative purposes, they‘d learned) translated roughly to mean “sacrifice.“ Funny, they thought, since the Kurban they knew had never engaged in sacrifice of any sort and, conversely, seemed wholly dedicated to the execution of extreme and reckless pleasure. In fact, Kyle Clayton was publicly notorious for being the very opposite of Kurban, and had achieved a modest fame by singularly embodying everything that sacrifice was not.
But Syeed Salaam, who was more popularly known as Rick, did not care for contemporary literary history and its various profligates.
One of the regulars at the restaurant where he worked had embraced the Religion of Truth, and it was a thing to rejoice.
“Assalamu ‘alaykum,“ Rick intoned, kissing Kyle on both cheeks and squeezing him with his powerful arms.
“Wa‘alaykum assalam,“ Kyle answered without a hitch, thereby exhausting his entire catalog of Arabic. Although there was no way for Rick to know it, the conversion of Kurban was not everything he might have hoped for.
“You pray today, brother?“ “Twice this morning,“ Kyle remarked, hating himself for the fib. To the left of the entrance was a shallow doorway used for deliveries.
Rick reached in and removed the clean cardboard sheet he used as a prayer mat. In order to pray five times a day, as was his duty to Allah, he had to get in at least two prayers at work. During the lulls after the lunch and dinner rushes, Rick would run to the alley on the other side of street to fulfill this obligation.“

There are other problems tied to the eatery, such as the presence of waitress Erin Wyatt, with whom Kyle had a drunken fling a few years back, and City‚s owner, investment tycoon Lonny Tumin, whose scheme to concoct a fictitious Internet company will end up ensnaring Kyle. In the meantime, though, our young author is knocking out a story about his religious conversion, and before all is said and done, a group of militant Muslims will declare a fatwa against him (a la Salman Rushdie) that they are determined to carry out, no matter what.
The dizzying plot twists are handled at roller coaster speed and the subjects of money, religion and greed all get a good going-over in the best black comedy tradition. The skillful development of characters and Wenzel‘s ability to load a paragraph full of ironic realizations and rich details make “Gotham tragic“ anything but. This is a truly pleasurable read, with a scope and punch as big and impressive as that of the New York skyline itself.

  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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