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Not your standard mystery novel: ‘City of Brick and Shadow’

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Tim Wirkus, author of “City of Brick and Shadow”.
(KEVIN CHANG, Daily Pilot)

It figures. Tim Wirkus sits in a restaurant by UC Irvine talking about his book “City of Brick and Shadow,” a novel about the elusive quest to nail down the truth, and his responses stymie a reporter’s facile attempts to connect art to life.

That neighborhood described in the book, Vila Barbosa — that must be where Wirkus actually worked as a missionary, right? After all, the author, like his two lead characters, was a missionary in Sao Paulo, Brazil, from 2003 to 2005, and a Google search turns up an area called Vila Barbosa in that city. But no, actually, the Vila Barbosa of the novel is a composite, based on the characteristics of a few places around Sao Paulo.

The novel’s mythical villain, the Argentine — was he a real neighborhood legend? (In the intrigue-filled setting of Wirkus’ novel, “real legend” isn’t quite an oxymoron.) No, not exactly, although Wirkus heard about some powerful men who had similar reputations around the city. Did Wirkus ever meet those men? Maybe, or maybe not, since they may have blended into the crowd or cut a more modest figure than their lore indicated.

Kind of. Maybe. According to someone else. Wirkus’ novel, which follows two Mormon missionaries who appoint themselves amateur sleuths and attempt the solve a man’s disappearance, lives in the world of these ambiguous phrases. The interview seems to be going the same way. But when Wirkus gets into his inspiration for writing “City of Brick and Shadow,” the connection between the author and his characters finally turns vivid.

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“There’s so many situations in which missionaries are kind of narrating and fitting their experiences into narratives,” says Wirkus, who lives by UCI with his wife, a Ph.D. candidate, and their 8-month-old son. “You know, you go to mission conferences and you talk about your experiences you’ve had with people, and there are these very specific tropes within conversion narratives and things like that.

“Also, the letters missionaries write home have these very specific conventions. So, I mean, that was kind of a moment in my life when I started to think a lot about how we do shape our lives into narratives.”

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Not quite elementary

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“City of Brick and Shadow,” which came out in December from Tyrus Books, is a novel about the human ability — and, sometimes, craving — to shape narratives.

In the opening chapter, missionaries Mike Schwartz and John Toronto spot Marco Aurelio, a young man who was recently baptized in their church, fleeing through a crowded marketplace with visible wounds on his body. When Aurelio fails to reappear, Toronto sets out to solve the mystery himself, bringing Schwartz along as his sometimes-wary assistant.

Over the course of 282 pages, the protagonists find themselves in a tangle of rumors, firsthand experience, secondhand accounts, local myths and fragmentary evidence. In poor, seedy Vila Barbosa, any claim may be fact or fiction, and anyone may use a false back story or assumed identity.

That may sound like the setup for any number of crime novels, but “City of Brick and Shadow” — which shows its literary ambition by opening with an epigraph by Emily Dickinson — doesn’t proceed along a standard whodunit path. The novel’s ending, in particular, might mark it for inclusion in a philosophy or psychology class rather than a workshop on mystery writing.

According to Wirkus, that earned the book a thumbs-down from some publishers early on. He had an ally, though, in author Aimee Bender, his faculty advisor in USC’s creative writing program. Bender hadn’t read “City” before Wirkus sold it, but she recommended him to her agent on the basis of his short fiction. Once she read the novel, she felt that her hunch had paid off.

“What I admired in the novel is how he was playing with a kind of classic noir mystery form, but he was also messing with it and playing with the reader’s expectations,” Bender says. “And that same desire to kind of toy with storytelling, I saw that in the stories as well. It just looks different on a smaller scale.

“He’s kind of interested in who tells what to who and how the story gets translated, and that’s all over the novel.”

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Writer on a mission

“Who tells what to who.” A decade after his missionary experience ended, that’s what sticks out to Wirkus most about his time in Brazil.

The oldest of four siblings who grew up in the Salt Lake City area, Wirkus planned from an early age to undertake a mission through his church; both of his younger brothers have since gone as well. With his mother working as a librarian, Wirkus had grown up in a literary home, but he hadn’t entertained serious thoughts of a writing career by the time he boarded the plane at age 19 for South America.

In Sao Paulo, Wirkus spent two months taking Portuguese classes and then took to the streets to talk to strangers about his faith. Sometimes, he and his fellow missionaries met with people referred to them by the church. Other times, they knocked on doors or simply stopped passersby.

Wirkus, who kept a journal and wrote long letters home from Sao Paulo, wasn’t looking for fiction ideas when he made his rounds. Still, he found himself constantly on the receiving end of personal information — not solicited, but not unwelcome either.

“I did a reading in L.A. a few weeks ago, and one of the guys who came to the reading had been a missionary,” Wirkus says. “And we were talking about it — just what a strange thing it is, how readily people invite you into their lives and will tell you, just kind of unburdened, big stuff that’s going on with them, that will unburden these long-held, guilty secrets or things that are really kind of gnawing at them.

“And they’re just telling these things to these 19-year-old strangers who are totally incompetent, I think, at giving any sort of useful feedback.”

When Wirkus returned home in summer 2005, he spent a month reacclimating to American culture — his parents, he recalls, saved two years worth of Newsweek issues for him to read — and then finished his undergraduate studies at Brigham Young University. There, he focused on his literary side with the help of a mentor: Stephen B. Tuttle, whose classes he took multiple times as an undergraduate and master’s candidate.

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Wirkus credits Tuttle for introducing him to authors like Bender and Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine short-story writer and poet. Tuttle, for his part, didn’t feel like Wirkus needed much coaching.

“I’m flattered to think that Tim might have learned something from me,” he says by phone from his office at BYU. “But he had a pretty incredible tool chest when I first met him.”

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‘A dangerous game’

The public got its first glimpse of those tools in 2008, when Wirkus’ short story “Crosswords,” about a widowed grandfather who calls his grandson repeatedly at night for help with crossword puzzles, appeared in the literary magazine Ruminate. A smattering of other short-story publications followed, and in 2013, Wirkus’ “Sandy Downs” won a novella contest in Quarterly West.

For “City of Brick and Shadow,” Wirkus threw himself into research, devouring Brazilian history, contemporary news accounts and even books on con artists. Over lunch, he tosses out a laundry list of influences: Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, even the 1950s film noir classic “Bad Day at Black Rock.”

Since “City” came out two months ago, reviews have been sparse but positive. Booklist called the work “an absorbing mental exercise that’s opaque enough for the most jaded armchair detectives and is guaranteed to spark delicious book-group debates,” while Publishers Weekly concluded its one-paragraph summary by saying, “A dangerous game of some kind seems to be in the works, though figuring out what that game is may leave some readers scratching their heads with the not unwelcome sense that they, too, have been played.”

Now, Wirkus is busy teaching the rules of the game. Since 2012, he’s helmed writing classes at USC, where he’s a candidate in the doctoral program. Working with undergraduates, he says, helps to sharpen his own writing. He also has a second novel in the works, although he declines to go into detail.

“It’s kind of a novel within a novel kind of thing,” he says. “I’m a huge fan these days of Roberto Bolano, the Chilean writer, and one thing I really like about his short stories and his novels is kind of this ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ quality they have to them, where you’ll be going along with one story and suddenly veer into a totally new narrative. I think there’s kind of an exciting energy in that.”

A novel within a novel, a story within a story — and those words “kind of” multiple times. Coming from the author of “City of Brick and Shadow,” it all somehow feels appropriate.


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