Fact? Fiction? Memoir? Ghost story? Well, Richard Bowes’ latest release Dust Devil on a Quiet Street is some of all of these. Rather than the mess that has the potential to be, Bowes pulls the hybrid off effortlessly, coming up with a moving, elegiac melange that’s as much a love letter to Manhattan as it is an excursion through dusty diaries.
Taking the aftermath of the World Trade Center collapse on 9/11 as his starting point, Bowes uses the hole in the ground left by the tragedy to dredge up his old ghosts. Runaways, snitches, minor celebrities, relatives, and lovers all coalesce and move through his life in a non-linear path that always circles back to the clearing in the present.
Bowes’s best friends Mags and Geoff figure prominently in parts of this book. Geoff, who committed suicide earlier is solidly in the ghost column, but Mags may or may not be an apparition the first time we see her. Part of the fun with this narrative is not knowing whether or not the person he’s interacting with is real or ghostly.
The threads of many stories are started and interwoven with each other, but Bowes’s characters are so distinctive and his ability to place them so precise that you never lose track of the individual stitches and can even see the whole cloth they form. His story of runaways Judy Finch and Ray Light and BD, the undercover operative hired to track them as well as other fugitive teens is one of the longest and most intricate in the book, sinking and resurfacing a couple of times before it’s finally completed.
My other favorite story lines here—and though most of them have appeared as short stories, they have been woven into an inviolable whole—concern the death of Bowes’s brother, Gerry, an incident regarding two student suicides at the university library Bowes works for, and the circumstances surround his retirement from that job. The chapters in which he discusses various celebrities he knows are less successful for me, but even those are well-written.
Bowes writes clean prose that’s descriptive without being showy and carries just enough emotion to propel the reader forward but doesn’t bog down or wallow. His ear for dialogue is good, but he doesn’t dramatize as much as he narrates. This gives some needed distance to some rather sentimental material.
But be warned, this is not a book of short stories you can simply plop down anywhere in and find yourself entertained. Dust Devil on a Quiet Street should be read front to back—no, not read. Savored. Its accumulation of detail and narrative momentum is both compelling and entertaining. And even if you’ve never met the seedy New York City before its Disneyfication, you’ll be old friends with it by the end.
©, 2013, Jerry Wheeler