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The City Man

David Munroe
Dundurn Press,
$21.99 trade paperback

June 2006

Toronto the Bad

If nothing else, The City Man should teach you how to pick pockets.

Or rather, how to be a stall, plant a prat, work the whiz or even bang a souper.

The novel by Howard Akler is full of the terminology used by low-level grifters in 1934s. The city man of the title is Daily Star reporter Eli Morenz who, after a breakdown, is returning to work and stumbles onto a gang of Jewish pickpockets. He starts a relationship with Mona, the gang’s “stall”, the person who distracts the mark while the “cannon” dips into his pockets. Mona feeds Eli information for a series of articles about the crooks he dubs the Centenary Gang for their brazen work during a parade to celebrate Toronto’s 100th birthday. The stories get him back on page one of the Star and raise public demand for a crackdown on crime in the city.

All that’s interesting enough—the inside scoop on crime and newspaper life in 1930s Toronto—but what may be even more intriguing is how Akler tells the tale. This is one of the most tersely written novels I’ve ever read. Talk about "just-the-facts, ma’am". The story is told in short bursts, usually no longer than a page of simple exposition from Mona’s or Eli’s perspective. Short sentences. Like this. Or dialogue without attribution. Though it's easy to tell who’s speaking. Then every now and then there’s a strangely convoluted but appropriate word. Like trepidatiously.

The effect is that the novel is almost more like a poetry collection, without the difficulty that so much modern poetry presents for readers. But it also unexpectedly turns out to be a love story.

This is a quirky but assured novel from a writer who was co-author of the non-fictional Toronto: The Unknown City (Arsenal Pulp Press) presenting odd bits of information about this city. Is reality stranger than fiction? Read both books and decide.

The City Man is a fast, easy read at one hundred and sixty well-spaced pages but, be warned, after finishing it you may be tempted to go back through it a second time to pick up on all those things that are understated but hinted at in Akler’s rock-hard prose.

— Eric

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The City Man
Get at Amazon: Canada

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Toronto: the Unknown Cit
Get at Amazon: Canada