Thursday, April 6, 2017

Book Review: "Skyscraper of a Man" by Michael Bowe

There's a sense of nostalgia that pervades Michael Bowe's novel Skyscraper of a Man, and it's not just because the book takes place in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s. The book felt old-fashioned to me, but not in a negative way—it's a story told utterly without gimmick or guile, simply a well-told story rich with character and plot, the kind of book that seemed much more prevalent years ago than it does today.

"While some accomplish great things, others like myself simply manage to be in the right place at the right time as momentous events occur, members of a fellowship that I call The Coattails Club. It is, after all, an inevitable aspect of human history; a talented, inspired few will live noteworthy lives while a fortunate few will bear witness. And for any writer, again like myself, there is no role more fortuitous than that of witness."

Peter Dalton, the Nick Carraway-esque narrator of Skyscraper of a Man, grew up in a middle-class household in suburban Delaware in the 1960s and 1970s, what he referred to as "perfect conditioning for an insignificant life." His parents placed education above almost all else, so Peter decides to go to Stanton University in a town called Cavanaugh (I never quite figured out where in the U.S. it was supposed to be). He is overwhelmed about being away from home but excited about the future.

Within the first few days of college, he meets Benjamin Franklin Matthews, a local Cavanaugh boy of modest means, raised by a Revolutionary War buff and owner of the local printing press. Pete realizes very quickly that Ben is unlike anyone he has ever met—someone so sure of himself and his place in the world, someone with the bravado to dream big but with the intelligence and ambition to build a foundation for, and the drive to work to achieve, his dreams. Ben awakens a slightly lower-grade ambition in Pete, and quickly the two set their sights on becoming the first freshmen in more than 20 years to get an article published in the college newspaper.

As they pursue their journalistic ambitions, Pete and Ben, along with Pete's roommate Danny, once a promising football player sidelined by injury, and Ben's girlfriend Tyler, an aspiring journalist whose ambitions might rival Ben's, form a quartet of sorts, each working to pursue their dreams and enjoy this formative time in their lives. But it's not long before Ben takes the first step and launches Cavanaugh Weekly, a newspaper he hopes will position his hometown for significant growth in the future, and put him on the road to the fulfillment of his dreams. He convinces Pete to drop out of college with him and become the newspaper's editor, a move that Pete quickly jumps at.

As the years pass, Cavanaugh Weekly becomes a paper of significant influence and success, and Cavanaugh itself is on its way to becoming the city Ben imagines it can be. While Pete is tremendously fulfilled by his work, Danny and Tyler each experience roadblocks they don't expect. But it is Ben who is the shining star, and he decides to run for mayor, tangling with a dangerous career politician. Can Ben run as a truly principled candidate, or will the system—and his opponent—break him? Is Cavanaugh ready to elect a political neophyte on the strength of his personality and his vision for the future?

One review of Skyscraper of a Man hailed its "silver screen potential," and truly, I could see this adapted into a riveting television miniseries, because the themes of friendship, ambition, disillusionment, fighting for your dreams, and realizing life rarely winds up as we plan, are tremendously resonant and universal. Bowe imbues his characters with passion, flaws, and complexity, so you want to know what will happen to them, if they will achieve all they hope to.

While the plot isn't necessarily surprising—you pretty much know what will happen in many cases before it does—the storytelling draws you in and keeps you hooked. This is simply good old-fashioned storytelling—I know I keep using that word but it's always refreshing when you read a book that generates excitement without pyrotechnics, violence, or suspense, but on the strength of its plot and its characters.

The author provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks, Michael, for making this available! I look forward to seeing what comes next for you!

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