Ross Barkan’s Demolition Night
(Tough Poets Press, 2018)
Demolition Night, Ross Barkan’s first novel, tells the story of a not-too-distant, dystopic future so terrible for most people that a young woman and her friend go back in time to change the future by killing the woman who gave birth to America’s despot president. It’s a harrowing, humorous, and sometimes confusing satire, set mostly in New York City, that blends detective story and science-fiction, but marred by first-novel missteps.
Barkan, a twenty-nine-year-old journalist, grew up in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn and unsuccessfully ran for a New York State Senate seat. He says his novel gave him the chance to write about “baseball, the ’70s, tech hegemony, time travel, S&M, politics, and death.”
Demolition Night begins on July 12, 1979, New York City, and follows the escapades of Archie London, an ex-NYPD cop turned private investigator and vigilante who hunts down turnstile jumpers, gang members, and other assorted bad folk. His friend, Ronald Truncheon, the “literary master,” is now approaching middle-age, too, after having written a 1,124-page book called Goodnight, Retrograde when he was twenty-three. Nowadays, Truncheon spends most of his time watching television, especially Welcome Back, Kotter, because of the “Sweathogs.” Obsessed with monikers like “Sweathogs,” Truncheon calls names “the ultimate signifiers,” and imbues each with absurd meaning. When Archie visits Truncheon, he’s dressed in a trench coat, but has removed the mask he wears when hunting down evil-doers. Barkan shares Truncheon’s concern with the significance of names and calls his already comic-book-sounding character “Vengeance” when he’s on patrol. Archie is obsessed by a young woman, Lolita, who plays a key role in America’s future.
The story jumps to the near-future, near enough that some characters from 1979 still live. In the future, the capitalists, not the workers, have united, and economic prosperity is the be-all and end-all of civilization. America has been led by a president, more of a dictator, named Octavio Velez who’s encouraged maniacal economics so much that “corporatism has run amok.” Intelligence is valued only to the extent that its fruits can be monetized. You could say that our corporations have already run amok and that intellectualism is disdained. But in this future America, the population is even more divisive than it is now and is trifurcated into Ents (entrepreneurs), premiums (the workers), and zeros (anyone without a job). Companies like Velocity Ventures, McKing, and Gaggle, which makes a device also called a Gaggle that keeps everyone physically and mentally connected, run people’s lives. If you work for a company, you are generally contracted to it for life and breaking your agreement is illegal. But Quentin Stellar, a professor and trust-funded billionaire son of Gaggle’s founder, plans to save America from technocracy, oligarchy, and slave-drivers. He believes he’s discovered the power to fly; and if he’s great enough to fly like a superman, he figures he’s great enough to rescue America. But his flying demonstration proves less than stellar, leaving it up to one of Quentin students, Sundra, to follow the Plan to restore meritocracy and social justice to America.
Whenever there’s a time-travel machine in fiction, the story must evolve or devolve by actually using it. Chase Dimon, who’s worth the GDP of an emerging third-world nation, owns Velocity, and has access to such a handy device. So, when Dimon takes his son Devlin and friends on the boy’s pre-bar mitzvah party to the Jurassic age, a miscalculation lands them in Comiskey Park in Chicago on Disco Demolition Night, giving a title to Barkan’s novel. At Comiskey, recordings of KC and the Sunshine Band, ABBA, and Donna Summer explode, which isn’t so bad, until you realize that Chase and the guys, except for Devlin, blow up, too.
Back in the future, Velez writes his memoir, The Age of Velez, advised by the rich megalomaniac and sadist Devora Dimon, Chase’s widow. Velez is proud of the economy he helped create, but laments that in his two terms he didn’t go far enough. When Devora’s not advising Octavio, she entertains herself by swallowing ArteMs., a medically-enhanced libido drug for women; she hunts and shoots androids named after former New York mayors like Koch, Beame, and Giuliani; and she rapes her male android servants with a strap-on dildo. After witnessing Devora’s barbarity, Sundra, who has been transferred from Velocity to Devora’s household staff, becomes even more dedicated to pursuing the Plan.
The lively writing propels the mostly third-person narration of disparate scenes, but Lolita’s perspective abruptly departs from third- to first-person in three chapters for no apparent reason. Barkan’s characters occasionally speak in clichés like “at the end of the day” and “It is what it is,” but worse, the narrator refers to Devora’s “drug of choice” instead of “favorite drug.” Like Truncheon, Barkan imbues names with often humorous or symbolic meaning. Google becomes Gaggle, and Barkan names a character “Chase Dimon” because he’s pursued great wealth, and calls Chase’s widow, “Devora,” which sounds like “devour.” She eats ArteMs., whose name sounds like the goddess of the hunt Artemis, an ironical name since Devora has nothing in common with chastity or its goddess. Despite his cleverness, Barkan’s near-omniscient narrator quotes W. B. Yeats, but misspells the poet’s last name; and he refers to the “many words interpretation of quantum mechanics” instead of “many worlds.” A few other mistakes remain in the novel. Lolita introduces herself to Archie as Jojo’s brother, but it’s obvious that she’s a she. And strangely enough—Devora’s shotgun shoots bullets instead of shells loaded with pellets; I suppose that could be the futuristic shotgun, but it’s more likely a city-dweller’s mistake.
Barkan uses Octavio to ironically foreshadow how the future will be affected after Sundra goes back in time, but to describe that scene or otherwise talk about Barkan’s vision of the future would reveal the book’s ending. Ultimately, Demolition Night is a quirky, titillating satire that lambastes American corporatism, sex, and politics; and New York City readers will probably enjoy Barkan’s literal pot-shots at local politicians.