Sean Maher's Quality Control

Monday, November 07, 2005

Sunset City: For Active Senior Living

Sunset City: For Active Senior Living is the second major book from Rob Osborne, a thematic follow-up of sorts to his debut, 1000 Steps to World Domination.

As Osborne said in my interview with him a couple months ago, "Sunset City was conceived as a parody book. It occurred to me that it might be funny to write a story that was gritty and tough like Frank Miller's Sin City, and then to add grey hair and golf carts. Retirement gags with blood and guts. Eventually, the idea took on a life of its own, and matured into a more ambitious story. Telling a story that was very true and meaningful to me, and telling a story that was more challenging and surprisingly different from 1000 Steps to World Domination became the goal."

Elements of the parody concept remain – even the visual storytelling takes occasional cues from elements of Sin City – but the story here is indeed much more difficult than 1000 Steps.

Frank McDonald, the book’s protagonist, is a widower stuck in Sunset City, a surreal hybrid locale combining the cordoned-off, neighborhood-watch vibe of a gated community with the geriatric waiting-to-die subtext of a retirement home. The atmosphere is suffocating; Osborne has included enough familiar experiences to make the material accessible to anyone – the world of Sunset City has all the giddy banality of white suburbia, a very deliberately polite, tentative enthusiasm. Everyone acts happy because that’s what they’re supposed to be. The difference, of course, is that in Sunset City, you have to be happy because if you’re not, you could die unhappy. The smiles in this book – with a couple major exceptions – are all forced.

Playing to this urgency – the terror of impending death, thinly disguised by birthday candles and pool parties – Osborne takes a slow pace with the plot, spending a lot of time on conversation and landscape shots. Like the community itself, this leisurely approach is deceptive. A full-page spread of Frank’s one-story home, completely silent in the sunlight, could be a desert shot of sand dunes baking in desolation; with no explicit cue, the message received is one of loneliness and danger.

So there are, really, two major obstacles in Frank’s way. He needs to find a way to stay alive, vital in the face of his mounting age and the crushing weight of his community, but he also needs to find a solution to his loneliness. Ostensibly, he does have one good friend, a firecracker named Marty who wears “Geezer Power” t-shirts and does cannonballs into the pool, but Frank clearly feels a separation from him. Marty is "the crazy one," somebody to be taken with a grain or two of salt. Frank’s dog, Wally, gives Frank something to do, but picking crap off the ground in a grocery bag isn’t terribly satisfying.

Fairly early in the story, the catalyst of violence is introduced. An elderly convenience story owner kills two would-be robbers, and Frank is in the store when it happens. The event triggers something in Frank, but he seems unsure of what exactly that is; he begins moving towards something, we can see, but he makes several false starts, unsure of how to interpret the lessons coming at him. Marty thinks the way to survive old age is to make it a party; the store owner sees it as a war.

Finally, Frank’s new neighbor – a confident, calm woman named Sophia – asks Frank if he’s happy. He stutters an answer about the beautiful sunset, but the question forces him to rearrange his approach to what he’s been taught.

Finally, invigorated by Sophia’s question and horrified by a disturbing local news item, Frank takes action – as the solicit text puts it, he "takes life by the balls."

This is where the story gets challenging for me as a reader. Frank’s choice, while on some level a morally justified one, is simplistic and brutal. It seems to bring a positive resolution to the story, but somehow I’m unsatisfied – and a little unsettled – by his choice. A second read, however, reveals an interesting angle from which to approach it. The whole book, see, is filled with parallels: Frank’s home gets a landscape shot during the day, and towards the end, another one at night. Frank’s face gets a full-page spread as he mourns his wife, alone in his living room, and another one once he’s shocked back into awareness by the killing of the young robbers. Likewise, I think Frank’s final grab for vitality has a parallel early in the story, albeit a less obvious one.

In the opening pages, Frank’s reading a newspaper, and comes across a familiar story – an old man has gotten disoriented while driving his car, and plowed head-on into a street market. Witnesses report, to the confusion of the police on the scene, that the car actually sped up after hitting someone. Why? Frank knows the answer – "The old guy in the caddy panicked. Instead of slamming on the brakes… he slammed on the accelerator."

My interpretation is that, feeling the immense pressure coming at him from all sides, from his unbearable loneliness, from the terror of impending death, from the cruelty he begins to notice all around him, from the need to connect to Sophia and the crippling fear of doing so... Frank goes to hit the brakes. He takes a wild, desperate stab at making things right.

"Happiness is a byproduct of function," as William Burroughs put it, and convinced that he’s found a function, a way to contribute to the well-being of the world, Frank seems prepared at the story’s end to find his own little slice of peace and happiness. But there remains, for this reader, a sense of discomfort. There’s a feeling that maybe Frank’s hit the accelerator.

Where 1000 Steps was a manifesto, an enthusiastic call-to-arms, Sunset City reads more like a cautionary tale, a fable complete with a lesson at the end. But unlike in his first book, Osborne’s intentions here take a back seat to the events and choices in the characters’ lives. We’re left to choose for ourselves what exactly the lesson is, and if the goal was indeed to create a more challenging and difficult story, this was an intelligent and effective way to achieve it.


Post a Comment

<< Home

FREE hit counter and Internet traffic statistics from