Phoenixville Rising by Robb Cadigan is good evidence of the changing reputation of self-published works. Self-publication is no longer seen as the last resort of the incompetent. I saw the book on a cart in my local library, and seeing as I live only a couple of miles from the town of Phoenixville, I was intrigued enough to pick it up. I read the first couple of chapters right there in the library and decided that it was worthy of a complete read. (Sorry, I'm picky. And there are way too many books out there that aren't worth the investment of time.)
A rather literary novel, it braids three story strands together: the central story of the teenagers Sketch, Boo, and Tara in 1980, the story of Rebecca Wilton from the early days of Phoenixville, and the story of Sketch in the present. (All three strands are fictitious, including the "historical" one.)
Sketch and Boo are best friends, fifteen-year-olds trapped in a decaying city that sees no future for itself. They both come from badly damaged families, and the only path they see upward lies through one of the local gangs: the Furnace Boys, named for the workers of the iron foundry that used to be Phoenixville's claim to fame. Tara enters as a disruptive force: an outsider who questions and defies the status quo. Boo's attempts to ingratiate himself with the gang leaders and work his way into the gang, and Sketch's attempts to extricate himself from it play off of one another, pushing the two boys into a dead end of violence and despair, with dramatically different results.
Rebecca Wilton, the daughter of the man who made Phoenixville wealthy, also feels trapped, both by her family and by the harsh realities of the Civil War. Although a member of the privileged upper class, she also has to deal with heartbreak and loss and her sad story has left an indelible mark on the city. Like Boo, Rebecca reaches for illusions and pays a high price.
I personally would have liked to see a tighter, more organic tie-in between Rebecca's story and the events of the 20th century. It doesn't hold together quite as well as I think it should. Some of the events feel abrupt, and the conflicts superficial.
Having said that, I do think this is an very good book. Cadigan writes with care, and discreet touches of poetic language are testimony to his awareness of the power of words. The characters, at least in the central story, are well-developed and complex and we ache for all of them. The author balances the grimness of the story with a dose of hope, something the title more than hints at. The metaphor of rebirth from flame and ash is central to the story, Phoenixville itself being a metaphor for Sketch's own resurrection, although his past has left an indelible mark on his soul. It is a bittersweet story, and well worth the read.
Three paragraphs from page 33:
And right there, in the middle of it all, was Deacon himself, seated like a king in a black-vinyl recliner that had seen better days. How he got a recliner up there was anyone's guess and I found myself momentarily marveling at the sheer industriousness of the feat.
"Ah, the youngsters," Deacon said, his voice an oil slick over sandpaper. "Come in, boys, come in."
We inched forward. Too nervous to meet Deacon's eyes, I took a minute to look around.