A review of Emerald City by Brian Birnbaum

Reviewed by Christine Jacques

Emerald City
Brian Birnbaum
Dead Rabbits LLC
Sept 2019,Paperback: 416 page,ISBN-13: 978-1950122004

The basic outline of ​Emerald City​ promises a good and informative story of scandal, drug runs, and a peep into the Deaf community. Benison Behrenreich is the hearing child of Deaf Adults (a CODA), and a veritable prince: his father owns a multimillion dollar company that provides telephone service to Deaf adults by relaying the content of calls through an interpreter on a video screen. He’s also an okay basketball player, and a bit of a wastrel. When Dad Behrenreich is arrested for ​fraudulent billings to the government​, Benison feels compelled to redeem himself. After all, Dad bribed his way onto Myriadal College’s basketball team.

Leading the reader down a related path brings us to Julia Paoloantonio, unlucky daughter and granddaughter of Behrenreich associate Johnny Raciti. Her mission: recruit the best damn drug mule Peter Fosch, and her mother can join one of Raciti’s organizational boards. These two lines come together in a mere 375+ pages.

Birnbaum, a CODA himself, loves florid, beautiful, language. Perhaps being a hearing child of Deaf parents channeled his talents to the written page more readily than to a spoken art? Some well-turned sentences are spot on: “Matthew was a walking gerund, always stating things that could’ve just been done in the first place” personifies the unity of word and action by using its difference.

More often than not his alliterative prose lands with a thud, staggering under its own weight. Birnbaum’s love of wordplay gets in the way of the “certain directness at the core of storytelling​” that should be at the forefront. Calling Fosch’s apartment a shitbox is a step towards plain speaking, but the balance is too heavy on the highfalutin language. One paragraph runs into three pages without advancing the plot. A kidnapping is suffocated under a verbose description of the surrounding park. Wading back a few pages to remind yourself of minor characters is like hacking through a jungle.

Birnbaum’s “​more educated and privileged class of readers who interpret things for themselves,​” will be reaching for the dictionary often. In ​Emerald​ City, uncommon words such as ​chatoyant​ glow on the marble of a page. Their baroque nuance also reduces ​Emerald​ to a joke that only the In Crowd gets. This is fine for an MFA holder enamored of​ language that’s reaching for something​. Logophilia doesn’t promote the story the writer could be telling.

And that’s a pity. This is a story about the Deaf and their community, varied in its outlook and self-reflection. Even the term “the Deaf community” invites a flurry of wild signing and fingerspelling, explaining why the D is capitalized, what a Hearie is, and the intricacies of dining out. Deaf people don’t agree on how or even whether they should adapt to a hearing world that rarely thinks of them. This ignorance has fed a broad and bitter distrust of hearing people. Without knowing a Deaf person, how does a hearing person begin to know about this simmering resentment? How can Deaf people know that some Hearies want to reconsider their auditory privilege? Books such ​Emerald​ City could help redefine the In Crowd. Having claimed the mantle of CODA royalty to produce ​Emerald City,​ it’s fair to expect clarity from the writer this time. However, Birnbaum is more than a CODA, with other stories to tell. He’s hinted at stepping to another perspective in his next project, and with his ​small press and community​, he has a ready-made platform. Keep him on the radar.

About the reviewer: Christine Jacques lives in Colorado. Literature is her first love, but her husband is a close second.