The City Man

Howard Akler has become one of my favourite authors. I’ve read three of his — I’m told — four books: Splitsville (2018), Men of Action (2015), and now The City Man (2005), accidentally reading in reverse order. All are available from Coach House. The book I haven’t yet read is his first, Toronto: The Unknown City, the title of which is unsurprising given his novels.

I’ve lived in Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal, and I can’t say that Toronto is my favourite. Yet, Akler’s novels endeared me to Toronto more than living there did. The city is central to both Splitsville and The City Man. In the latter, Union Station features prominently as a profitable haunt for pickpockets in the 1930s. In Akler’s prose, the setting receives more love than it has during the past decade of endless renovations. The action of Splitsville has as its backdrop the events surrounding the stillborn Spadina Expressway, construction of which was halted in 1971 after public outcry. I’m a sucker for local history, and Toronto is a city too busy to often remember its own, so I admire how Akler works it into his writing.

Akler’s prose leaves ample space for the imagination to fill the gaps. The descriptions are terse and sparse, and delivered in brief, evocative turns of phrase where every word pulls its own weight. What’s artful here is that this isn’t a matter of omission, but rather clever use of negative space to let the story breath. On a busier page the reader might be rushing through the crowded sentences searching for the next important piece of information. A page out of Akler’s books instead invites the reader to slow down and chew on each word carefully, mulling over its individual importance and contribution to the whole. This less-is-more approach to his prose means Akler can say more with less, and sometimes speak volumes without stating anything. In the autobiographical Men of Action, he describes his process as carrying around a memo book to “work over original sentences, loosen their knots until each one is limber enough to connect to the next.” When I read this, it made perfect sense. This careful, piecemeal approach to sentence-craft is evident in his works.

I haven’t had much to say about the plot of his novels, because if anyone ever reads this I’d prefer they read the books for themselves. The City Man follows Eli Morenz, the titular reporter for the Toronto Star who is assigned to report on events in the city. In doing so, he stumbles across a cadre of small-time pickpockets working “the whiz” — as the racket is called. I’ll leave it at that, since I don’t want to describe any specific scenes or events that would given them away. What I will say is that the story is not complicated. In many ways it reflects the prose, in that the focus is on small moments instead of big set pieces.

I love this novel. It’s the third debut I’ve read in a row and for my money the strongest. Sadly, Akler recounts in Men of Action that it took him eight years to write The City Man. And it was another thirteen years after that before Splitsville first appeared. So I’ll likely be waiting a while before I hear from Akler again. At least it’ll be worth it.