When Boston literally was the Hub of its world, the small industrial cities of New England thrived. Now they are in steep decline, and none moreso than Jack O’Connell’s ‘Quinsigamond’. From geographic evidence, Quinsigamond is Worcester, forty miles west of Boston. But internal evidence suggests a much larger city, a fantastic creation of the Decline of the Later American Empire, part New York and part New Orleans during Mardi Gras.O’Connell’s first novel, Box Nine, saw a science-fictional super drug poisoning Quinsigamond’s dopers. The title’s suggestion of Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle was mixed with a hard-boiled Hill Street Blues sort of city torn between realism and stage set. O’Connell’s next, Wireless, gave a faint cyberpunk edge to a story of radio pirates. The framework wasn’t enough to carry the story, but detailed functioning of sub-groups within a fracturing society made some of O’Connell’s aims clearer.The key to Skin Palace is the business card of Jakob Kinsky, immigrant son of one of the city’s top gangsters, and would-be filmmaker. “”Hyperreal noir for our entropic world”” is Jakob’s motto, and in case you missed the point a quote from the master of entropy, Thomas Pynchon, adorns the following section. As gangs, pornographers, moral crusaders, and artists intersect, it gives O’Connell plenty of room to dissect the entropic decline of America. Paradoxically, his best writing reveals the more mundane inner lives of his favourite characters. Both the ‘searchers’ in this book, Sylvia, who seeks the mysterious photographer Terrence Propp, and Jakob, looking for a way out of crime and into film, discover parental secrets along the way. But as the bodies start to pile up, these personal narratives are all that keep the story under control; a prose more firmly realised might bring the wider theme and those personal tales together more convincingly.Where Higgins brought a new style to the crime novel, O’Connell is still searching for a consistent voice. He writes powerful descriptions, and can be a perceptive builder of character; sometimes the sheer chutzpah of his enterprise sweeps you in. But there are also places where the narrative appears to be trying to encompass all the highlights of 20th century postmodernism in one thriller, Don DeLillo meeting Elmore Leonard, and many of the characters are hollow as a result. The skin of Skin Palace gets stretched just a little too thin.

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