When Ed Rendell was elected Philadelphia's mayor in 1991, journalist Buzz Bissinger was uniquely placed to chronicle what looked like a turning point in the city's history. A colorful and controversial former district attorney, Rendell was among the first of the reform-minded Republicrats who were swept to power in city after city in the early '90s (the wave culminating, of course, with New York's ubiquitous mayor, Rudy Giuliani).
Rendell entered City Hall facing a billion-dollar budget deficit, an immediate showdown with city unions over a new contract, the impending closure of the historic Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, critical mismanagement of the public schools and public housing and the continuing attrition of jobs and middle-class residents in an atmosphere of rising crime and crackling racial tension. In Rendell's phrase, Philly was in imminent danger of becoming "Detroit without the automobiles" -- and the incoming mayor had promised Bissinger (whose widely praised first book, "Friday Night Lights," was about high-school football in small-town Texas) complete behind-the-scenes access to his administration as he tried to reverse the city's fortunes.
Given this setup, you'd really have to work hard <i<not to produce a compelling drama of big-city Realpolitik in the era of government downsizing. Alas, work hard Bissinger does, muddying his narrative with turgid prose and inflated similes straight out of Danielle Steel and padding the book with endless tangential discourses on the minutiae of local history and the decline of civilization. (He fills an entire paragraph with the names of ships built in Philadelphia.) As his breathless subtitle suggests, Bissinger apparently believes he has to make his story into a pulp thriller in order to convince anyone to read it, and municipal politics simply don't offer those kinds of pleasures. His brief sketches of four ordinary Philadelphia "heroes" (the fifth is actually Rendell's principal aide) feel unfocused and artificial, while his portrait of Rendell is curiously incomplete; after spending upwards of 300 pages with the mayor, I'm still not sure whether to view him as a hero or a caustic hothead with an evil neoliberal agenda.
At the outset of "A Prayer for the City" I was longing for the perception and insight that a Joan Didion or Michael Lewis would have brought to this intriguing project, but by the end I would have been content with the simple declarative sentences of a capable newspaper reporter. Didion has written that the task of a political reporter is "to observe the observable," which is much harder than it sounds. Bissinger ultimately has some valuable observations about the Disneyfied "audience economy" being forced on our inner cities, but he's so much in love with his own writerliness and pat social analysis that precious little of "the observable" manages to sneak through.