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Three Rivers, Three Novels

Inside Kevin Forsythe's dystopic Pittsburgh trilogy

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Until now, Kevin Forsythe's published works have consisted mostly of gripping narratives about Pittsburgh snow-removal procedures and stadium lease deals. A trusted lieutenant in City Controller Tom Flaherty's office for more than a decade, the aspiring novelist has had little public outlet other than the audits he has helped compile.

Yet even the limited audience for these works must have suspected Forsythe's efforts concealed a larger literary ambition. (After all, how many other cities have audits that refer to German existentialist Martin Heidegger?) And Forsythe is now releasing a self-published trilogy of novels, a trilogy more than 15 years in the making.

The novels -- Stardust on the Allegheny, Murder on the Mon and Twilight on the Ohio -- defy easy categorization. They are part crime novel, part political satire, part dystopian sci-fi adventure story, and part philosophical inquiry. They're like a lot of what comes out of Grant Street these days, in other words, except much more fun to read.

Forsythe's three protagonists, all somewhat jaded civil servants facing the collapse of civilization itself, each traverse what one calls "the seas of Pittsburgh's post-industrial night." The political machine they've worked for is being replaced by another kind of machinery -- a soulless apparatus with a pink-slip for a heart and a blue-ribbon commission for a brain. Their public offices have nearly been privatized out of existence, and indeed most human activity -- starting with our jobs and ending with consciousness itself -- has been subcontracted to shadowy corporations in the name of "growth."

While contesting that new machine's power, Forsythe's heroes ruminate over the philosophical implications of everything from row-office reform to Rousseau, traveling from Bloomfield to Hazelwood, from Bonhoffer to Hegel. During the trek, they encounter a cast of characters who -- as attentive readers will notice -- bear a striking similarity to real-world figures: newspaper editors, politicians and even a certain balding alt-weekly book reviewer. They also unravel a plot that one character describes as "a cosmic conspiracy theory that would make Dick Scaife's rags look like the Reader's Digest. " It's a theory that ties row-office reform to the 1974 death of Allegheny County District Attorney Robert Duggan, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the city's nascent robotics industry, and the harvesting of human organs.

Of course, when you put it that way, it sounds a little nuts. But if art is a lie that tells the truth, Forsythe has sprinkled plenty of philosophical and political insight throughout the trilogy. With the city tottering on the brink of financial collapse, the books' skepticism of such buzzwords as "public/private partnerships" has proven all too justified.

Forsythe wrote most of Murder on the Mon more than a decade ago while in jail for chaining the doors of Oakland's Pentagon-funded Software Engineering Institute. (Jail was "a good experience," Forsythe says, but then his cell was roomier than his apartment at the time.) But Forsythe is no Luddite -- he currently operates the city's Peoplesoft accounting software -- and while Pittsburgh once represented the unthinking corporate machine he now decries, it's also "the place where the bosses had to work a little harder to get people to work like slaves and live like dogs. And I just want to celebrate that."

Despite the books' dystopian vision, they also invite the reader to take shelter with their protagonists in local clubs and in the music of Forsythe's favorite bands. The impulse is reflected in the book covers themselves, illustrated by Evan Knauer, who fronts the local band A.T.S. "I wanted people to look at the book covers and think of a thousand telephone poles in the South Side and Oakland," says Forsythe. The book covers "look like the advertisement of a gig."

And a gig is what Forsythe's Oct. 3 book-release party will be, with a celebration at the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern Friday, Oct. 3. Music will be provided by the band Forsythe's books hail as the "House Band to the Universe": A.T.S. itself.

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