Part internal monologue, part fantasy, David Bendernagel’s new novel, The End of the City, chronicles the post-9/11 high school senior year of Ben Moor in Reston, Va., interweaving his reminiscences with the evil doings of an alter ego, who seems to have stepped right out of a video game. The book follows Ben’s high school romance and the many assassinations performed by the alter ego, most notably the murder of a best friend and fellow assassin, which becomes a turning point, pitting the alter ego against his employers.
Despite the wildness and the novel’s debt to comic books and video games, sadness pervades this book. Waves of it emanate from any approach to Ben’s father’s death and underscore the nowhereness of so many suburban landscapes. This sadness, like the shadow of mortality that The End of the City so successfully conveys, is palpable, so effectively does it tint every development and every one of Ben’s often angry, desperate ruminations.
Ben muses, “I’ve spent hundreds of hours playing Tomb Raider in Roy’s basement”—and it shows. The whole suburban gestalt, video games in the rec room, high school banter (a mess hall is “barf orange”), the half-life of omnipresent strip malls, the suburban emptiness, its powerful contribution to adolescent anomie—all that is alienated enough. But add to it the emotional heft of the father’s death, and the result is a deep despair. It is even evident in Ben’s defense of his father, the corporate attorney: “…but sticking up for the rights to rail spur access and percentages of pipeline output is not always the work of bad guys, is banal but not evil like dictators trying their enemies in kangaroo courts or demagogic radio hosts imploring their listeners to pulp the ethnic minority with machetes…” The dead father is this narrative’s pole star. Any memories of time before that demise are colored by it, “before Mom and Dad started bringing up their two boys in this landscaped swampland as best they could, succeeding and failing in parts, and Pops died and Mom and Bobby and Ben were the Moors left…”
The End of the City rotates around mortality, loss, and grief, and even the action-packed assassin chapters somehow partake of this, because they center on a struggle with a father figure called The Teacher, one who, it turns out, is probably dead. The Teacher has betrayed his disciple; the father has abandoned his son—accidentally, though, by dying. And these severed relationships are at the core of both halves of this novel, set in a nonlandscape which “never banned fast food per se, but in the early years the first establishments were zoned to within about 30 feet of one another.” To compound all this, Ben’s dad died while trying to salvage the lives of those co-workers who had survived 9/11, and the picture that emerges is one of catastrophe and its scars. Even, perhaps especially, in the relatively safe suburbs of Washington.