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“A writer’s life only becomes clear to him after he writes it,” declares Richard Bowes near the end of his Dust Devil on a Quiet Street. Part memoir, part tell-all, part homage to the city he has lived in for forty-plus years, and part secret history of that same city, Dust Devil is more than just an examination of Bowes’s life, although it definitely has the quality of someone looking back at his life and trying to make sense of it, both to us, and to himself.Born and raised in Boston, it is New York during the fifties and sixties where Bowes came of age, and by New York, he means the Villages East and West of lower Manhattan. He describes the hustlers and bygone bars along Third Avenue; the hedonistic (and often brutal) drug culture of the sixties and seventies; later, after becoming a university librarian and writer of speculative fiction, he writes about the other writers he associates with, their secrets and feuds. Although he mentions the Stonewall riots, the advent of AIDS, 09/11, and the Recession of 2008, his stories are never about these events, but rather about himself and the other characters he knew, lived with, and occasionally loved.
And such characters! In the first chapter we meet Mags McConnell and Geoff Holbrun, whose ghosts (literally and figuratively) haunt Bowes throughout the book. Counterpoint to their tempestuous, doomed triangle is a similar threesome, Judy Finch (a.k.a. Judy Light, a.k.a. Judy Icon), Jonathan Duncan (a.k.a. Ray Light), and BD, who meet in New York, eventually form a band, and two of whom die there. We meet fellow speculative fiction writer Barbara Lohr, who everyone calls “the Major” because of her British accent and overbearing attitude; the strega Teresa Rossi, who becomes involved when The Necronomicon is borrowed via inter-library loan; and Selesta, one of Bowes’s godchildren, whose ancestry is not entirely human. Additionally, supernatural characters appear throughout Bowes’s life, from the ghostly Witch Girls, whom Bowes first meets when he is only four years old in Boston, to Sister Immaculata and Detective McGittrick, both of whom visit Bowes when he is sick in St. Vincent’s Hospital, in his sixties.
Followers of Bowes’s writing will already be familiar with much of this novel: most of the chapters have appeared previously as short stories in other publications during the years 2005-10. (For example, the opening chapter appeared previously as “There’s a Hole in the City” and won the International Horror Guild Award for best short form in 2006. The hole, created 09/11/2001, allows the ghosts of the dead to return; some of them belong to Manhattan, some specifically to Bowes.) These stories are neither presented in their order of publication, nor in chronological order, but in a non-linear fashion, like someone sifting through imperfect memories, further enhancing the surreal quality of the overall narrative.
For readers who immediately eschew anything with the “fantasy” moniker—or who seek it out—this is not epic fantasy in the manner of The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones; nor (despite its very obvious urban setting) is it the urban fantasy of Patricia Briggs or Cassandra Clare. Bowes’s work is closer akin to the (admittedly much more overt) fantasy of Charles de Lint, wherein we see our own world, but through a mirror, aslant. Most of the fantasy elements are subtle, and presented ambiguously: are the dead really visiting Bowes, or is he hallucinating after surgery? Bowes fosters this ambiguity throughout, by juxtaposing his own memories against other characters’ recollections and interpretations of the same events.
How much is factual? That’s anyone’s guess. How much is true? All of it.
Dust Devil on a Quiet Street
By Richard Bowes
Paperback, 9781590212974, 307 pp.