“Lame is good – I sing of lame, glorious lame! I claim liberty from smooth editing and cosmetics and strategic marketing. No, give me free, fluid text! It’s a revolution, isn’t it?”
So says Con Manos, narrator of Worthy of This Great City, in a quote wonderfully positioned to discourage book sales. Well, perhaps I’m serious but fortuitously failed to live up to my own rebellion – the literary one, not the moral movement in the book. Maybe I haven’t been embarrassing enough; maybe I pandered to the reader.
Worthy is deceptive: it can be appreciated as straightforward satire or as moral philosophy or as interested commentary on the novel because I did play a joke with this book – my first, incidentally – played with the limits of narration and who can be speaking after all. It’s a very literary visit to a Bakhtin carnival. And I think that complexity is correct; it reflects the manifold meaning in every instant and how we all avoid seeing it.
And if at first you’re offended, contemptuous – well, I want to offend. But I’m not going where you think, politically or otherwise. Keep reading. Be tolerant.
So, about the book:
Ruth Askew, a minor celebrity, is spouting some highly incompetent philosophy about the end of virtue. Con Manos, a journalist, is attempting to uncover a political scandal or two.
Add some undistinguished members of City Council, an easy listening radio station, a disorganized charity, a prestigious Philadelphia newspaper, and any number of lawyers and other professional criminals. In Worthy of This Great City the compelling stories of two stubborn individualists intertwine in a brisk, scathing satire that invites you to question everything you think you think about today’s most discussed issues: populism and elitism, the possibility of truth, the reach of profound stupidity, and the limits of personal responsibility in these post-truth, morally uncertain times.
From Chapter Two:
(Read the full Prologue on the EXCERPTS page.)
Now visualize City Hall (meaning this 19th Century version of course, the Broad Street behemoth as opposed to that serene Colonial structure in the historic district) as a literal piece of that pale sky brought down to sidewalk level, consolidated by some unchecked hubris into an impossible pile of pale masonry, a stupendous fortress with its central courtyard the unavoidable crossroads of this city, a thoroughfare familiar to upstanding suburbanites with politely damning expressions, the disturbing urban poor, cubicle dwellers and retail workers rushing off to run a quick errand at lunch, tourists frowning up at the tower and snapping photographs in front of the flowerbeds, politicos, police, journalists – all that unremarkable flotsam going about their intensely self-important lives, an uninspiring stream flowing determinedly through this Second Empire monolith.
The building is a bully determined to squat in everyone’s way no matter where they think they’re going. It lurks, I swear; you’re walking along and suddenly look up to find that tower tilting directly above you. Penn himself keeping his purposeful eye on you although never bother to justify his interest or anything else. You turn a modern granite corner whole blocks away, think it a distant memory, and there it is again sprawling across a stretch of arty little side streets much nearer than it has any possible business being. A shimmering gray-white stone artifact of Philadelphia past, that once serious, even urgent city, the tallest masonry building in the world covering an entire square city block with its incredible mass, its supporting walls over twenty feet thick. Picture that: castle walls! Ornate to the point of obscenity, encompassing infinite examples of arcane sculpted symbols, veined marble cool to the touch, cantilevered stairways, unexpected entrances, sudden stops, and unrelieved damp. Bland linoleum squares sound at every footfall: you will be heard here, for better or worse. Water drips haphazardly onto piles of official documents stacked on the floors of half-empty offices. Hallways wander like something out of a horror movie mansion, endless corridors going off to nowhere. Elaborate mosaics and friezes occupy recessed spaces, deliberately situated so as be almost never viewed.
Generous nestling chambers of unabashed self-indulgence wait prudently concealed behind heavy carved doors, all leather sofas on Oriental rugs; you glimpse oil paintings belonging to some judge or patronage appointee in an outer office before his regulation tight-skirted, officious administrative assistant shuts the door in your face. Endless dim hallways ripe with the ubiquitous stench of urine echo to immoderate voices and magnify the sporadic scurrying of tired city personnel. Impatient potential jurors wait on wooden chairs lining walls painted an institutional beige, sheriffs escort uninspiring defendants to and from courtrooms, and avid, underpaid ADAs pass and nod and occasionally confer with equally harried, slightly sleazy defense attorneys. Every now and then a city aristocrat, a councilperson or ranking member of the mayor’s administration comes whisking around a corner like a forgotten promise only to abruptly retreat and retrench behind the security posts and bailiffs and general intimidating paraphernalia of the elected elite.
Atop it all, supremely incongruous, stands bland Billy Penn, that stout, reformed delinquent, twenty-seven tons of immortalized Quaker equability. Unmistakable against the pallid sky, poised directly over Lawyerland with one hand pointing, perhaps, to his home estate at Pennsbury, or maybe to the Shakamaxon site of his peace treaty with the Lenni-Lenape, or maybe, as occasionally posited, to a certain whorehouse in Chinatown.
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