Cary Newman, a boy brought up in the country, is appalled to find himself living in New York following the collapse of his parents' marriage. Swept away from his mother by flowing crowds in the subway, he loses consciousness and wakes to find himself in a different version of the subway in a different version of New York: Down Town.
Down Town is the place in which everything and everybody no longer wanted in Up Town New York ends up. It has many levels, with the most recent at the top and the most ancient at the bottom. The inhabitants are the dispossessed and rejected, and they vary in size, becoming steadily smaller the longer they are there. Cary falls in with a gang of street children led by the pugnacious Allie, a girl his own age. Allie takes pity on him and agrees to try to find a way to return Cary to Up Town, since he doesn't seem to belong in Down Town. Their journey through varied scenes is hindered by the attempts of the black-clad Badmashers, led by the sinister Commander Brand, to apprehend him, but aided by an network of colourful friends. It gradually becomes apparent that Cary has a special purpose for being there, to preserve Down Town - and even Up Town - from being taken over and ruined by a rapacious organisation.
This is the first time I have re-read this book since the late 1980s (it was first published in 1986) and I had forgotten that it was aimed at younger readers. Still, I have a fondness for such stories about parallel realities into which people can fall, and this one is rather good. It has some clear messages about balancing technological advances with concern for the environment, as well as developing loyalty and determination in its young protagonists.
Down Town reminded me of several other more recent stories on my shelves, two of which I have reviewed here (see the reviews list in the left column): particularly Un Lun Dun by China Miéville and to a lesser extent The Ragchild by Steve Lockley and Paul Lewis (the first review I ever posted on this blog). Another one which comes to mind is Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, and of course the prototype and inspiration for all such stories, Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, which I haven't read since I was a child and really must renew my acquaintance with!