Luna Park is the dazzling collaborative debut of novelist Kevin Baker (Dreamland, Strivers Row and artist Danijel Zezelj, the author of more than 20 graphic novels. Their graphic novel starts out as a noirish tale set in a Coney Island closed for the winter and being gobbled up by a Russian mobster from Brighton Beach. The year is 2009, but the narrative takes the reader hurtling through history to the war in Chechnya, as well as to Coney Island’s Luna Park, Dreamland and Steeplechase Park in the early 1900s, and the Russian Civil War (1917-1923). The trip is vertiginous, but Zezelj’s bold and emotive illustrations and colorist Dave Stewart‘s palette will sweep you away.
When we first meet the protagonist Alik, he is prowling the bleak landscape of Coney Island, murmuring his favorite line from Pushkin’s “Bronze Horseman”: “I’ll fix myself a humble, simple shelter. Where Parasha and I can live in quiet.. “
The Russian émigré is an enforcer for a loan shark who runs a shady kiddie park on the site of the original Luna Park. Of course this is a fictional alternate universe since Luna Park closed in the 1940s and the site has been occupied by a housing complex since 1959. In the novel, the Astroland Rocket and Burger Girl are still in place on the roof of Gregory & Paul’s Boardwalk food stand, but G & P’s has become a sideshow instead of Paul’s Daughter. As the saying goes, any resemblance to real characters or events is purely coincidental.
Luna Park’s lovers Alik and Marina and their doomed counterparts in the novel’s other times and places resemble a set of nesting Russian dolls. “Hey soldier c’mere and know your future,” Marina calls to Alik when they meet at the mobster Feliks’s nightclub and center of operations. Her tarot cards are inspired by the illustrious figures of Mother Russia’s past. Alik is haunted by nightmares of the war in Chechnya and guilt over the death of his lover Mariam. He tells Marina: “I don’t believe in the future.” Despite Alik’s addiction to heroin and Marina’s enslavement by the mobster who controls Coney Island, the new couple find refuge in each others arms.
Two thirds of the way though the book, Alik either falls though Baker’s equivalent of Alice’s Looking Glass or is blown to eternity in a shoot out with the mob. Perhaps Alik or one of his reincarnations is hallucinating. We’re not entirely sure. All of a sudden, Alik is no longer himself, but a little boy spending the day in Coney Island with his parents.
It is the early 1900s because the family traipses through Luna Park and Dreamland. They ride the Steeplechase horses before Alik finds himself back in Russia where he grows up to be a soldier in the Russian Civil War. The time travel speeds up and history repeats itself: love, war, betrayal, death. The shocker of an ending reveals a crime novel within a crime novel that will have you reconsidering history and re-reading Luna Park to find the clues carefully planted along the way.