Thoughts on Sick City

Posted by Tobias Carroll

About three-quarters of the way through Tony O’Neill’s new novel Sick City, his pair of protagonists meet with an aging composer named Rupert Du Wald. Du Wald is very much a classical noir eccentric — comic in some areas, sinister in others. As he handles a piece of film, he begins a long ode to many things analog, which includes this observation:

…there’s no romance to video. I feel sad for the people who will come after us, don’t you? Those people for whom video or CD will be the medium that documents their history?

It’s a resonant moment, and yet it’s also a classical crime-novel beat: the eccentric collector’s statement of purpose, half sympathetic and half obsessive. In many ways, it’s also symbolic of the novel as a whole, which fuses O’Neill’s perspective on addiction and recovery with a more traditional crime-novel plot, including a memorably nasty MacGuffin.

But even as it makes its way through certain paces that the reader might expect, the addictions of its protagonists make the narrative unexpected. They’re both sympathetic enough for the reader to hope that they’ll make it out of the book alive, but O’Neill is also realistic enough about their drug habits that their success abounds with dangers of its own. That he’s able to make the genre elements work alongside an oftentimes brutal take on addiction is an impressive accomplishment, and makes for a crime novel with a particularly nasty sting.