Life before the internal combustion engine was no damn fun. That, along with a vague sense of disquiet, is the thrust of The Kingdom of Ohio (Amy Einhorn Books, 322 pages, $24.95), the debut novel of possibly former Portlander Matthew Flaming. (Flaming has conflicting biographies within the book and on the dust jacket, which describe him as living, respectively, in Brooklyn and Portland.)

A historical fantasy set in 1900, the novel pits Peter Force, a young mechanic employed in the digging of New York's original subway line, against forces of history and ego, throwing him into the ring with J.P. Morgan, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla and a disheveled young woman who claims to come from the fictional lost Kingdom of Ohio. Their story features explosions, conspiracies, time travel and a lot of footnotes—it is presented as a combination of memoir and research paper, complete with fictional Chicago-style attributions.

In terms of imagination, Flaming falls between E.L. Doctorow and Jules Verne—The Kingdom of Ohio aspires to the grit of Ragtime and the apocalyptic paranoia of Robur-the-Conqueror. Stylistically, though, he is no match for either author. The novel is burdened with an irksome, whining narrator, and Flaming's characters tend to make odd, overdramatic pronouncements. But Flaming does possess a talent for conjuring lost worlds. His descriptions of the subway tunnels, the squalid bars of turn-of-the-century New York, the Kingdom and the Idaho frontier are so real as to be frightening, the stuff of historical nightmares.

Flaming builds his story on a solid foundation, filling his characters' histories with concrete detail. It's compelling stuff, satisfying despite the novel's inconclusive and confusing denouement. The Kingdom of Ohio is a promising, if imperfect, debut. I'm sure the steampunk crowd will adore this novel, but I'm more interested in Flaming's follow-up.


Matthew Flaming reads from

The Kingdom of Ohio

at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651, 7:30 pm Tuesday, Jan. 5. Free.