The World of Tomorrow

Written by Brendan Mathews
Review by Kristen McDermott

This ambitious, sprawling adventure imagines New York City and the 1939 World’s Fair in all its jazzy glory. Mathews, a professor of creative writing, uses every fictional trick he can think of to steer the three main characters—the passionate but hapless Dempsey brothers, Martin, Francis, and Michael—in and around the streets, hotels, dance clubs, and back alleys of the metropolis. The beating heart of the narrative is Irish, and savvy readers will spot many allusions to Samuel Beckett and James Joyce, whose Ulysses is Mathews’ narrative model.

As in Joyce’s masterpiece, we follow each brother in turn, up and down the city, and listen to his internal monologues. Beckett’s sense of loss and suspended identity is present in the central character of Michael, brain-damaged and aphasic after a brush with an IRA bomb, but acutely sensitive to the sights and sensibilities of the city in which he wanders, accompanied by the ghost of William Butler Yeats. After a brief prologue on a luxury ship en route from Ireland to New York, where we meet Michael and his brother Francis, a scrappy escaped con with a stolen IRA bankroll, who has donned the persona of a louche Scottish lord, the rest of the story takes place during a single tumultuous week. The third brother, the emigré Martin, is an up-and-coming big band leader who finds himself and his young family endangered by Francis’ underworld pursuers. But, there are many more characters, and whether readers will find this novel joyously overstuffed or annoyingly cluttered is a matter of taste.

The multiple points of view—expressed in lovingly detailed musings and flashbacks—slow the action to a crawl at times; there’s a lot of telling rather than showing, and the author’s style can be a bit ponderous. Still, it’s an impressive evocation of the time and place, and the action becomes satisfyingly suspenseful in the last quarter of this long read.