Review: A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City

On the surface, this story collection is full of things I love: fantastical beings lurking under familiar places. But as I started reading I found that these stories really weren’t for me.

The common thread among the stories in this collection was fascinating, as almost every story contains some measure of supernatural force acting upon the characters. Cities we might think ourselves well acquainted with have become the breeding grounds of mysterious creatures. These inevitably collide with the humans that live there, resulting in strange interactions that, from the outside, appear coincidental.

That said, many of the stories felt like incomplete scenes rather than actual stories. The longer I read, the more I noticed Wachs’ tendency to set a scene before suggesting a supernatural element in the final sentence. In some stories, like “The Fix,” this works well, but in others it just makes everything feel unfinished. I think how well this bomb-dropping technique works for me depends on two things: how developed the story is as a whole, and how well the supernatural element fits in with the overall theme/setting of the rest of the story. In several of the stories, this construction feels tacked on, and doesn’t add much to the story overall. I’m all for ambiguous endings, but too often it feels like a cruel tease at a larger story that we are not worthy enough to access.

The other problem I had with this collection is that many of the stories feel like unabashed showing off. Two stories in particular, “Free Will” and “Elijah Drinks Chimay” are little more than endless philosophizing by a bitter protagonist. The fictions themselves seem to be vehicles for these characters to air their grievances about society, but they are mostly talk and little action. These were my least favorite stories in the entire collection.

That said, there were several I enjoyed. “Thanatos Cuisine” was darkly funny, and “The Fix” was probably my favorite in the collection beacuse of how smoothly the supernatural elements were integrated into the rest of the story. I also loved the eerie tone of “The High Prices of Venice,” and the feeling that the protagonist was slowly being driven to madness by forces beyond his control. This also happens to be the opening story of the collection, which I think perfectly sets the tone and presents the concept of the “sacred city” from the start.

“If God is in all of us then there is more divinity in a city of 10 million souls than there is in Stonehenge, the pyramids, or a sliver of the True Cross. Cities pulse with rough love unevenly spaced over boulevards and across alleys. If we tape enough heartfelt wishes on streetlights and leave enough dreams on the curb, anything can happen. […] This is the Sacred City.”

Despite everything, this concept I found truly beautiful and fascinating. The Sacred City is different for everyone. It’s the pieces you collect from every place you’ve ever been that coalesce into a larger view of the world. It’s all the things that fall together, that look like small coincidences, that we might call serendipity. We all have a Sacred City, and in that city, anything is possible.

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