Outerborough Blues: A Brooklyn Mystery
In his second novel, an urban noir, Andrew Cotto depicts a rundown Brooklyn neighborhood about to undergo a massive urban gentrification. Cotto’s portrait is beautifully tarnished and transient, stuck in the flux of a renewal that will do more to displace and alienate its inhabitants than to improve their lives. One of those inhabitants is our hero, Caesar Stiles, whom the novel tracks through a maze of sharply cut Brooklyn streets and city pathways, following him along the avenues of the larger plot and down the side streets of some briefer subplots, as he attempts to save both a beautiful French stranger and—perhaps—his own life.
Caesar is the product of revenge. His Sicilian grandmother came to the new world with an old world motive—to murder the man that left her for America.” She was not a part of a “huddled mass,” just a traveler with a knife in her sock. Caesar’s grandfather, conversely, helped to build the Brooklyn Bridge. This lineage makes Caesar the grandchild of two dramatically different people—a bitter and violent loner, and a man who helped to construct a massive piece of New York’s connective tissue.
And connection is something Caesar is yearning for. A long–time drifter, he’s looking to find a home in order to fulfill a promise made to his mother to out–stay his family curse, “a curse cradled by movement.” To accomplish this, he sets up shop in a largely African-American neighborhood in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, and takes an unassuming position at a local bar called the Notch. Enter a mysterious French woman named Colette with a thick accent and a meltingly dark demeanor. Confetti-faced and doe-eyed with a killer accent, she seems an Anna Karina-type sauntering into a dank Brooklyn bar from some forgotten corner of Godard’s sleeping imagination.
Colette asks Caesar to help her find her missing brother, an art student named Jean Baptiste Rennet. But is Caesar becoming a pawn in some grander scheme? Unlike his grandmother, Caesar wants to avoid trouble, but Cotto complicates Caesar’s wishes not only with the entrance of Colette, but also with the intrusion of two other characters: Caesar’s violent older brother who feels he is owed something and a mysterious and sinister character referred to only as the Orange Man.
Transience and change not only mark this neighborhood; they mark Caesar, as well. As a teenager, he moved around so frequently that this sudden outer-borough stop makes him hyper-aware of the ever-shifting nature of the city, a city that Cotto depicts with all its pulses and shudders, and which continues to shift in the novel under a low-hanging cloud of smoke and dark beauty. Caesar returns to the memories of his transient youth like a refrain in a blues song, comforted by the familiar melody, which allows him to safely embrace loss and sadness—a loss that gets mirrored in the changing neighborhood itself.
Cotto writes about New York exquisitely. Outerborough Blues, with its vivid maze of streets and people, is a poetic, shivering noir mystery, consistently elegant despite its gritty terrain of the heart, head, and sidewalk. In Cotto’s hands, the city, fueled by anger and joy and constant movement, continues to reinvent itself, pulsing over bridges and pushing through the blood of its inhabitants, spilling out into refurbished and repopulated outer-boroughs. His believable and engrossing characters are reaching into the city from other places, countries, times; but nothing is ever fully restored for them—only buried under layers of industrial paint.