Heller Highland is aptly named; he careens on his bicycle through the steaming streets of New York City like a bat out of the proverbial underworld, dodging trucks, avoiding policemen and frightening pedestrians. It’s his job. Heller works for Soft Tidings, a messenger service with an angle the message, whether good or bad, is delivered in person, verbally. Burning City, a new novel by the father-son team of Ariel and Joaquin Dorfman, tells the story of Heller’s summer, when one boy takes the first steps to becoming a man. It’s 2001, the summer before the Twin Towers apocalypse, and Heller has been abandoned by his parents, globe-trotting relief workers, to live with his grandparents in a small, second-story walk-up. For a 16-year-old kid who dreams of one day competing in the Tour de France, being a bike messenger might seem like a dream job, but like all dreams, there’s more here than meets the eye. For one thing, it’s Heller’s job to deliver bad news; he has a knack for empathizing with his clients and somehow seems to know the right thing to say to ease the pain of the message, whether it be a sudden death, a lost opportunity or, in the case of Salim Adasi, a lover’s rejection.
Heller knows all about rejection. He’s madly in love with a girl he’s too shy to approach, but things change when he meets Salim. The Turkish immigrant takes the boy under his wing and gives him some unusual life lessons as they wind their way through the multicultural streets of the city. When Salim’s dubious book business, an irate cop and Heller’s adolescent drives result in tragedy, the boy must grow up fast.
Burning City, like many coming-of-age novels, deals with immersing one’s self in the unknown. Widely traveled but sorely lacking in social skills, Heller is no different than any other adolescent on the verge of adulthood, and with the help of Salim and his friends, he learns the delights and responsibilities of growing up. While adult in tone and language, Burning City is an excellent choice for teen readers. It admirably evokes the streets of the big city and the angst of every teen with big dreams.