Secret Sidewalk – Tom Lichtenberg weaves a meta narrative to tease out the child in all of us. (Book review)
“When Marcus was eleven and his little brother Ben was only six, they lived on a boat in the harbor with their mother, a hard-working grocery store clerk named Kristen Holmes. Sometimes Ben had trouble sleeping at night and he would climb to the upper bunk and jab his brother in the ribs until he woke him up. Marcus would open one eye, and then the other, and eventually say,
“I can’t sleep Ben would reply,” and Marcus knew what that meant. He would sigh and say “OK,” and then they’d both climb down, slip on their shoes, sneak up deck very quietly so as not to wake their mother, leap onto the dock and head out to the secret sidewalk which was right across the street behind the parking lot. “
And so begins the story of Secret Sidewalk, a fantasy thriller of sorts by Tom Lichtenberg. The delightfully talented Marcus builds an exciting world to entertain his brother siphoned from the building blocks of the streets around them. Ben is led to believe eventually that there are others who slip in and out of alternate worlds and these others are in turn protecting and maintaining the status-quo and making mischief or interfering with the solemn laws of life.
However, this is a rather trite explanation of the world Tom Lichtenberg creates in Secret Sidewalk. As many of the characters float in and out of Ben and Marcus’ world, many of the world problems are examined through the eyes of a young man, as he speaks with great warmth toward his brother. Marcus is not just a talented story-teller. he is a young philosopher, adept at making observations about the people in his story without judging them in any way. Here the adult steps in with Lichtenberg’s book, the observations existing almost as if they hover in the air around the action of the imaginary characters, such is the blurring of the line between the real and the surreal. Lichtenberg examines the role of fiction within the work itself, often blurring the lines between what is real and what is imagined.
“Fog was settling over the Secret Sidewalk as Marcus told a groggy Ben about the gathering of clans.
“It only happens once in a lifetime.” Marcus said. “And only when the Masters of the clans feel the need. They broadcast over secret channels and reach the networks through devious routes. From the north come the Sawdust People, flying directly to the settled site. From the South, the Scrap Metal Mountaineers. From the East come the re-earthly recombinators, sometimes known as Compost Nation, and from the west, the lose Federation of the Weed people, also called the Hosers.”
And this for me was the real power behind this remarkable novel. It’s not quite meta fiction, but the narrative does turn and twist in upon itself in a way that causes the reader to forget or doubt that they are reading the re-telling of a fable. Lichtenberg describes Marcus as a young Scheherazade, who was the Persian Queen condemned to death by her King in order to assure her fidelity. Scheherazade kept herself alive by telling her King such exciting and compelling stories, he would keep her alive for another night just to hear the end. The stories of Scheherazade end up becoming the One Thousand and One Nights. Lichtenberg brings his stories to life by moving seamlessly between narrative and a kind of theater where Marcus is playing every role that he creates. Ben will ask him questions as diverse (and typical of a young boy) as “why do we have to work” through to the nature of sexual connection and sometimes Marcus will answer Ben and other times one of the characters in the story will answer Ben. At first this makes for rather confusing reading, but Lichtenberg is patient (and relentless) and so the reader soon tweaks as to what this clever writer is doing.
At that point, the reader is able to suspend the desire for a pure sort of narrative and they can float along with the boys, moving in and out of fantasy, allowing – in a way – for an adult reader to move (back) in the rich imagination of childhood. The writing style is a sort of combination between theater and story-telling, where Marcus (who has actually created this world) floats in and out of an omnipotent role of observer. The way Lichtenberg has written the novel, it seems as though the narrative takes over and surprises Marcus also, but in such a way that Marcus knows whats happening all the time. (!)
Scheherazade had to tell her stories to keep herself alive. There is an implication in the novel that Ben has witnessed his mother “with” another man, and this could be why he can’t sleep. The boys are nervous and unsure of their mutual futures. Secret Sidewalk is keeping them alive, or at least sane, in a world that makes less sense to them when seen through the lens of “reality”. This is a very clever book, beautifully written, that will keep you fascinated through every page.