Let's get one thing straight: The protagonist of Thomas Glynn's novel "The Building" is a building. Or, more precisely, the Building. The Building is in Brooklyn. Like all great protagonists, the Building, "a grotesque magnificence," suffers a dual nature. On the one hand, it was conceived in a long-ago era, one of unusual splendor: " Its apartments are vast, with parqueted floors and oak doors. There is a gargantuan lobby with a marble floor, a gold-leaf ceiling, and vacant urns." In short, the kind of place most New Yorkers would give their eyeteeth for. But the Building, if not quite a dinosaur, has seen better days. "At times large holes appear in walls," the courtyard overflows with garbage, a nation of cockroaches calls the Building home. New York, New York.
The Building and its tenants are trying gamely to stay the never-ending onslaught of dirt and destruction, of "sneakered armies of sodomizers" and muggers, of infantries of bugs and bacteria. If it sounds as if the tenants haven't a prayer against such odds, they don't, because most of the damage being done to the Building is self-inflicted.
Among the tenant-offenders are MasterCharge and Visa, who live out of a vacant burned-out apartment on the Building's top floor and are muggers by trade, rapists for the hell of it and, for the Building's landlord in search of a quick insurance killing, the arsonists of choice. Then there are Tubbo Ricera, a Harvard MBA dope dealer whose motto is, "If you can sniff it, smoke it, jab it, swallow it, or stuff it, I sell it"; the meat dealer-sniper, Son of Sam model, who listens to his dog's divine commandments to pick off passers-by with his rifle from the roof of the Building; and the Chickenman, another savory roof regular, who brings chickens up there, has his way with them and then decapitates them.
The boiler in the Building doesn't work, the elevators don't work and, for the first half of this often darkly funny novel, nothing happens. Most of this space is devoted to introducing the considerable cast of subcharacters -- squatters, sharpies, owners, the super, the city officials. At first, this kind of literary table-setting is not bothersome because our eyes and ears and nostrils are being filled with sensations provided by the smorgasbord of freaks, loners and hustlers.
Glynn has an exceptional gift for detail, Pynchonesque in its sheer clutter, and he lets his words and sounds and images tumble freely over each other: "In the early evening the roof-sequestered walls begin to vibrate to music, to chatter, to the hum of voices, groans, extended vowels, splattered bits of sentences, shouts, moans, snatches of syllables, hints, sputters, and the smells, soft as silt, holier than water, produce a diaphanous cooking haze that settles over the entire borough, a fine layer of grease, pink at the edges, rancid in smell."
The author's mastery of a vivid style is not at question. His restraint is. So much does he wish to dazzle us with his inner-city rococo prose that we finally become inured to whatever new and strange bones he may throw our way.
It's almost too late, then, when some kind of a story does emerge. Lowell, well-intentioned and respectful of the "squat dignity" of the city's dying buildings, solicits the city government's sanction, if not their blessing, to attempt to resuscitate the Building. He must contend with the theft of a large boiler, a family of revolutionaries, indifferent tenants and finally, climactically, the Fire.
Because "The Building" is an urban allegory, it is not entirely fair to criticize it for not being realistic enough. But there are two tenets the author flouts -- that less can be more, and that it would be a lot easier for us to empathize with one or perhaps a few characters than it is to root for a vast collection of them plus an inanimate object -- no matter how downtrodden the former or how rent-controlled the latter.