Set in New York City, City of Strangers’ main character is Paul Metzger. Paul in his 30s, a struggling writer, is divorced but sorely misses his ex-wife. His father, who is in his deathbed, was a Nazi sympathizer. Paul’s brother, Ben, has personal and professional issues of his own and does not want to be associated with his father. Ben tries to maintain a distance from Paul too but as events unfold the author shows that Ben and Paul have a brotherly bond.
An incident severely disrupts Paul’s already complicated life: He gets assaulted by two boys. One of the boys starts following Paul, which forms the suspense element in this novel.
The author, Ian MacKenzie, uses a present continuous tense which gives an effect of events moving in front of the reader, like watching a movie. At times, the author is able to suspend the events and delve into moments such as Paul’s description of the disordered world around us, his thoughts on the failed marriage, and his views on religion.
MacKenzie’s writing is clear and intelligent when ruminating about these incidents, such as when he describes the failed marriage: “The intensity of their arguments came from a powerful and a mutual want: Paul wanted Claire to be different just by a little and she wanted the same of him.”
Or when he is describing the street brawl: “They are rolling Paul onto his back, almost coddling him, treating him for the moment like the injured person he is. This is new to him, the grammar of violence, these small intermissions used to emphasize the cruelty.”
On occasions, the author borders on poetry: “By morning bruises have blossomed across his ribs. They have the sheen and deep color of rotting plums.”
MacKenzie writes in a non-clichéd manner, has drawn some interesting characters, and has set up the conflicts of Ben and Paul nicely. But where he is perhaps lacking is the plot, as he forces some kind of resolution introduced in the thread of the street brawl. City of Strangers is certainly not a masterpiece, but is not worthless either.