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The Unpossessed City

Jon Fasman

(Penguin)

Call it the Moscow Walk: “quick, expressionless, squared shoulders, eyes straight ahead but peripheral vision fully engaged.” Every city has its own walk, a particular rhythm to the gait of its natives, a series of movements that reveals how those inhabitants feel about the place—and about their safety, or lack thereof, within the city limits. People in Chicago walk differently from people in New York. People in New York walk differently from people in New Delhi.


Detailing what he terms the Moscow Walk is just one of the services Jon Fasman provides in his moody, acute new novel, The Unpossessed City. It is not the first time that Fasman, 33, a Chicago native who now lives in Washington, has turned his careful eye on how people traverse distances. In The Geographer’s Library (2005), his debut novel, Fasman describes a bad guy’s transit through the streets of Sicily: “He cultivated his anonymity ... walking neither too near nor too far from others, neither too quickly nor too slowly, and never drawing attention to the thing he most wanted. He taught himself to pay more attention to the edges than to the center of his vision.”


Both novels might be classified as thrillers, because they involve state secrets and international intrigue—all the razzle-dazzle, James Bondeseque stuff, minus the tuxedos and the fancy cars. In The Geographer’s Library, a deft puzzle of a book that many critics compared to The Da Vinci Code because it used ancient legends to jump-start a modern-day treasure hunt, and now in The Unpossessed City, Fasman combines crisp, fast-moving, topical plots with the skillful creation of believable characters about whom you actually care: In The Geographer’s Library it’s Paul, a bumbling young newspaper reporter.


In The Unpossessed City it’s Jim, a bumbling young ... well, he doesn’t really have much of a calling yet, unless you think working in your parents’ restaurant and driving an ancient Dodge Omni “with sagging seats and a busted tape deck and a starter that sometimes sounded like marbles skittering down a washboard” constitutes a career.


But Fasman does a lot more than just concoct tasty plots. In both novels, he gives a vivid picture of distant places - distant in both miles and centuries - with more than just a guidebook’s bullet points. The Geographer’s Library is all over the map, but with The Unpossessed City, the place is Moscow. You’ll come away knowing it almost as well as you know your own block.


Fed up with driving around in that battered Dodge, Jim takes a job in the Russian city. There, he unwittingly becomes involved in an international smuggling plot run by some seriously bad characters. We see Moscow through Jim’s eyes—through a view that starts out innocent and curious, but that changes as Jim wises up: “Here, as elsewhere in Moscow, people carried around them an air of mystery and intrigue, purpose and inscrutability, their emotions unreadable. Smiles here had reasons; conversations were personal; voices didn’t carry.”


Fasman, whose family moved from Chicago when he was a toddler but who returns often to visit relatives, lived in Moscow for several years with his wife, Alissa. Moscow is “a city of extremes,” he said in an interview. “It’s a difficult city to like. But it’s an easy city to hate—and easy to love.


“It’s a brutal place, designed to make you feel inhuman. It’s very gray,” he added, and it is filled with “that mixture of humanity and brutality.”


And its people walk in a distinctive and memorable way, as Jim discovers: “The angular lines cast by the streetlights, the overcoats and fur hats, and the general air of purpose and seriousness,” he ruminates, “made everybody look like protagonists in their own mystery novels.” If only those novels could be as captivating as The Unpossessed City.

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