Sakey's second novel
a compelling look
at haves vs. have-nots

''At the City's Edge''
By Marcus Sakey
(St. Martin's Minotaur, 312 pages, $24.95)
Buy at Amazon

Reviewed by John Orr
January 2008

Marcus Sakey's first novel, "The Blade Itself" was astoundingly good, a "terrifically engaging, poetically structured tale of a man both tortured and tempted by his criminal past," as I wrote in my January 2007 review of it.

Sakey's second, "At the City's Edge," I don't find quite as compelling, largely because the pacing isn't quite as good -- and because we have seen its bad guys before and know all about them -- but it's still a very good read that calls attention to a number of very real problems in today's grim world.

Jason Palmer is a Iraq war veteran who'd been discharged after a man in his command was killed in a questionable way. Palmer is tortured by those memories and is just wasting his life in a series of casual hook-ups with women and drinking a lot of beer, avoiding any sort of responsibility.

Jason's big brother, Michael, runs a tavern in the run-down (and fictional) Chicago South-Side neighborhood of Crenwood. A widower, he is raising his eight-year-old boy, Billy, by himself.

One day he takes Billy into the basement of the former speakeasy, where a toy is found that had once been his, then Jason's, and now has become Billy's, a Transformer that switches from toy pistol to toy robot. As Billy twists and experiments with the toy, "Michael watched the boy work with that familar feeling in his chest, a sort of liquid bursting. That's my son. Like always, the thought seems both novel and ancient, a profound thing that could be taught only by the wet-lipped intensity of an eight-year-old-boy."

Michael is a good man, trying to do something worthwhile in his life, but ends up dead, his windpipe crushed and his tavern burned down around him.

All of a sudden Jason has to step up to the responsibility of caring for Billy -- but the trouble is, the bad guys who killed his brother seem to also be after Billy.

And there is no end of bad buys, from vicious South-Side gangs to crooked cops to ... others.

Jason, who'd been living month-to-month in a series of dumpy one-room flats, finds what he hopes is a safe place to stash Billy while he tries to find out who the bad guys are and deal with them. Along the way he meets a no- nonsense cop, Elena Cruz, and the two are forced by circumstances -- a lot of bad people trying to kill them both -- into trying to save each other.

Along the way, Sakey has a lot to say about the Iraq war, conditions in ghettos and the bad, bad influence of rich people who just want to get richer by stepping on people who are less rich.

As Jason puts it at one point, "I saw all this before. I saw it in Afghanistan and I saw it in Iraq. Everybody fighting to cut out their little piece of the pie. Their politicians, our politicians. COntractors and CEOs. Mullahs and warlords and generals. Spmetimes they did it with a document, sometimes with a bullet. But win or lose, the people playing the game never got hurt like the regular people in the middle."