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Michael Gross
Spillage is a wild play on the Faustian musical Damn Yankees, a rock and roll romance, and a wickedly fun throwback to a chaotic time. It's 1976, and The Big Apple is in sorry shape. Besieged on all sides, the city has become a graffiti-coated, garbage-filled, crime-ridden cauldron, teetering on the edge of total collapse. Adding to New York's towering woes, a revolutionary group called the Satanic Vanguard has kidnapped the mayor, set fire to Coney Island and threatened further mayhem. All that Gotham has to hope for are its resurgent Yankees, who've come back from the dead to reach the World Series by riding the arm of their quirky rookie phenom Nick “The Swan” Spillage. But Satan and his Vanguard plan to snuff that hope out too, and they’ve targeted a young couple to help with their diabolical scheme. The rock and roll-loving pair– Joan and Eliot —came of age in the late 1960s when the counterculture peaked. They've lived together in New York's East Village for eight years, making sweet music on the subways while their beloved city crumbled around them. Then Joan develops an obsession with The Swan, makes a deal with the Devil to capture his heart, and is transformed into a rock star with the spirit of Janis Joplin, whose mission is to get the pitcher to take a dive. Meanwhile, Eliot wrestles with what it means to preserve his own soul as he makes a valiant effort to win her back and save the day.
Gross’s lively debut takes a dip into the chaos of 1970s New York, when “those twin evils, inflation and depression, worked their ever-nastier magic on the streets” and the papers’ “daily dose of robbery, rape, rioting, arson, assassination, suicide, infanticide, and homicide” is enough to jolt East Village news-junkie Eliot from his habit. In Gross’s vivid imagining, the city’s last flicker of hope hinges on its World Series-bound Yankees, led by the “season-long heroics” of rookie star Nick “The Swan” Spillage. But even baseball’s not immune from the city’s travails, as the diabolical revolutionary group Satanic Vanguard kidnaps Mayor Lightly at a “Save the Cities” rally and threatens further violence, entangling a young couple (Joan and Elliot) and even The Swan himself.

This saga of urbane comic deviltry unfolds at a fast pace, with disjointed scenes and multiple characters crossing paths at several junctions heightening the boisterous New York-ness of the narrative. Gross masterfully employs the character arcs of Joan and Elliot to paint a rich picture of 1960s counterculture stalwarts—they tripped at Woodstock and have busked as a folk duo on the subway—facing the hard 1970s hangover. Joan’s obsession with The Swan leads her to strike a Faustian deal, setting the stage for a twisty love story intertwined with a search for identity as Joan and Elliot both face crises of the soul.

Gross’s potent blend of garbage strike-era New York portraiture, brisk comic dialogue (“Satan’s not so scary. He just don’t conform to bourgeois norms”), yellow-tabloid press accounts, earnest belief in baseball, and incisive socio-cultural and political explorations power a wild story rich with wicked humor but also a sense of humane street poetry. At its core, Spillage is an ornate portrait of New York, still vital at its lowest ebb: its politics, its neighborhoods, its diversity, and the abiding belief of the Flatbush Faithful. This is a crackerjack novel of love and self discovery that echoes themes of resilience and of redemption.

Takeaway: Faustian comedy of 1970s New York, the counterculture, and the Yankees.

Comparable Titles: Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A