New York Noir, Plus

Manhattan Beach     Jennifer Egan     (2017)

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Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize for her 2010 collection of linked short stories, A Visit from the Goon Squad. The form of her fiction before 2017 was unconventional, so critics seem shocked that Egan was capable of producing, with the publication of Manhattan Beach, a traditional historical novel, especially since such novels are not fashionable at the moment. I had never read anything else by Egan, so I approached Manhattan Beach as a seasoned reviewer of multitudes of historical novels, and it’s a good one.

The setting is New York City, first in the depths of the Great Depression and then in the midst of World War II. Keep your finger on the front or back endpapers of Manhattan Beach so that you can refer to the map of the Brooklyn Naval Yard as it existed during World War II. This may help you locate and picture the scenes of the novel that take place there.

The plot? I hesitate to reveal much, since one of the pleasures of this novel is the intricacy of the entangled story lines, which the reader unravels with every turn of the page. The central character is Anna Kerrigan, whom we first meet as a child in 1934, when she accompanies her down-at-the-heels father, Eddie, on a visit to a mobster’s home, which overlooks Manhattan Beach. Both this locale and the title of the book point to the prominence of bodies of water as recurrent images in Egan’s writing. The mobster is Dexter Styles, whose back story we’ll learn. We’ll follow Eddie, too, as well as Anna’s severely disabled younger sister, Lydia. The characters in Manhattan Beach have to confront organized crime, Wall Street bankers, Park Avenue doctors, and Nazi submarines. It ain’t dull!

The main line of interest, however, is Anna, who reaches the age of 19 during World War II and is able, like many women of the period, to secure war-related employment at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. She hates the tedium of taking quality control measurements of small parts and escapes on her lunchtimes to the piers that jut out into the East River. Gazing at the water, she sees a diver in a bulky canvas suit slipping below the surface, and she has an epiphany. “Jealousy and longing spasmed through her. . . she felt a seismic rearrangement within herself. It was clear to her now she had always wanted to be a diver, to walk along the bottom of the sea. But this certainty was fraught with worry that she would be denied.” (62-3) Anna single-mindedly and aggressively pursues her quest to become a diver, repairing the underwater portions of vessels heading out to war. Although Rosie-the-Riveter was welcomed in factories that turned out bombers, Anna-the-Diver has a tougher time convincing the male authorities at the ship yard to connect her to an air hose and let her clamber down the ladder into the depths.  

As Egan has explained in several author profiles (and as her acknowledgements at the end of the novel reveal), she exhaustively researched all the arcane detail in Manhattan Beach, learning not only about diving but also about the New York waterfront,  nightclubs, Irish Americans, gangsters, and merchant marine ships. At times, Egan seems so anxious to assure her readers of the historical authenticity of her novel that she piles on the data, listing, for instance, too many product brand names or too many seafaring terms. This is a small complaint, as is my sense that some turns of plot are clichéd and that the denouement of Manhattan Beach is somewhat abrupt. Still, I was left with the feeling that I’d like to know more about the later lives of the characters, and that’s always a sign that the novelist has done a very good job of constructing those characters.

Manhattan Beach has been touted as one of the great novels of the decade. I wouldn’t go that far in my praise, but I did find it very well-crafted and solidly entertaining. Check it out! And for more New York mystery/adventure, read my reviews of Brendan Mathews's The World of Tomorrow and of Colin Harrison's You Belong to Me.

Irishmen at the 1939 World's Fair

The World of Tomorrow     Brendan Mathews     (2017)

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The cover of this novel depicts the key setting: New York in 1939, site of the World’s Fair, with its theme and slogan “The World of Tomorrow.” When you open the book, the endpapers offer a map of the fairgrounds, with the iconic trylon and perisphere structures, which are also on the back cover.

Brendan Mathews compresses almost all the action of his novel into one week in New York City in early June of 1939, a time when the Great Depression had eased, when the future in America seemed bright, when World War II was still unimaginable to most Americans, despite the actions of Hitler in Europe. Three Irish brothers are at the center of a large cast of characters. Francis Dempsey has fled Ireland after a prison break and a run-in with the Irish Republican Army that left him, unexpectedly, with a bundle of cash. With Francis is his brother Michael, a disenchanted seminarian who has been severely injured by an IRA bomb. Francis and Michael assume fake identities when they arrive in New York, but they do seek out the third brother, Martin, who is married to Rosemary and has two daughters. We learn about Rosemary’s complicated family history in New York, and we also pick up the stories of other characters who will cross paths with the Dempseys. Irish expatriate Tom Cronin is a retired hit man who is called back to the city to retrieve the cash that Francis lifted from the IRA. Lilly Bloch is a Jewish street photographer from Czechoslovakia who’s on a limited visa in New York but is hesitant to return to her home and her fiancé given the Nazi presence in Prague.

The plot can be as rollicking as a slapstick Laurel and Hardy movie of the period, and when Mathews is in this mode, the pages turn themselves, especially in the climatic final scenes at the World’s Fair. However, I did find Mathews’s supernatural elements sometimes hard to swallow. The shell-shocked Michael has long conversations with the ghost of the poet William Butler Yeats. This is a way for readers to know what Michael, who cannot speak, is thinking, but it can get tedious.

Quibbling aside, The World of Tomorrow is serious and well written historical fiction, weaving in the funding of IRA terrorism by Irish Americans, the role of women in the mid-twentieth century, the political corruption of New York, and the competitive jazz scene of the city. Here is Martin, dragging home at dawn from a jazz gig: “. . . the early-morning hours were his favorite. Walking a nearly vacant street, with only a couple slouched against each other in the distance, steam drifting lazily from a manhole, a splash of neon thrown into a puddle, an after-hours bar whose last diligent drinkers hunched over their highball glasses—this was the New York he had come seeking.” (45-46)

Hanging over all the narrative is the reader’s knowledge of what is to come:  “The World of Tomorrow” will be postponed until after a long, devastating war that stretched around the globe. In the closing pages of the novel, Mathews spells this out: “. . . the story of the months and years ahead would be broadcast in boldface headlines and urgent radio bulletins. It would be told in V-Mail and telegrams from the War Department and in prayers offered in church. More than they could know, it would be written in silences, absences, and empty spaces. But the story of those years would also be told in love letters saved and bundled in ribbon, and in songs dreamed up during nights in the barracks, and in the warmth of the spotlight before the first note was sung, and in sunlit hours when it was possible to believe that everyone you had lost was only late, and would be home soon enough.” (546)

An Embezzler in Brooklyn

The Misfortune of Marion Palm     Emily Culliton     (2017)

When I tell you that this novel is set in contemporary New York, you may be thinking, “Not another story about bored rich people and their sad affairs!” Well, this one is different.

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Marion Palm, the central character in Emily Culliton’s The Misfortune of Marion Palm, is not a New Yorker you’d find in a Jay McInerney novel. She’s a college dropout who’s overweight, not very attractive, and keen on embezzlement. Yes, she lives in a pricey Brooklyn brownstone, but that’s only because she married Nathan, a clueless poet. His trust fund turns out to be smaller than Marion assumed, so Marion embezzles to bring the place up to standard and maintain their lifestyle. She has access to money because she’s a development officer, raising funds at the private school that her two daughters attend. Marion is very good at embezzling, but this school is run so haphazardly that stealing from the till is a piece of cake.

As the book opens, however, an IRS audit of the school is looming. So Marion takes off with a backpack full of cash, leaving Nathan and the young daughters. Marion is not as adept at running away as she is at embezzling, which leads to her involvement with Russian gangsters. Nathan, meanwhile, can barely order pizza delivery and get the girls out the door to the school bus.

Marion’s motivation for fleeing is not only the audit. She has a useless husband and no friends. As we learn in flashbacks, she’s had some raw deals in life. She’s disenchanted with her fake upper-middle-class life and the disdain with which she’s treated by the other parents at the school. She can see how wealthy New Yorkers squander their superfluous dollars, and she views her thefts as helping to correct financial inequality, Robin-Hood style. These issues outweigh Marion’s devotion to her children.  

Novelist Culliton’s prose is economical, her dialogue is rapid-fire, and her chapters are brief. Don’t assume that this means that her underlying themes aren’t serious. The plot moves along so speedily that I recommend reading The Misfortune of Marion Palm in one sitting, to get the full effect.

If you like The Misfortune of Marion Palm, you might want to pick up another mold-breaking Brooklyn novel, Lucinda Rosenfeld’s satiric Class, reviewed here. Novelist Maria Semple’s offerings also have a similar feel. Check out my review of Semple’s Today Will Be Different, set in Seattle, here. Like Culliton’s novel, these two also puncture the pretentiousness of the monied set. 

Asperger's in Manhattan

Standard Deviation     Katherine Heiny     (2017)

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You probably know someone like Standard Deviation’s Audra, a stream-of-consciousness, nonstop chatterer who talks to strangers on the bus and in the elevator, freely associating from one topic to all adjacent topics. You might find her endearing, or you might find her highly irritating and intrusive. Graham, her husband, finds her endearing most of the time, even when she proposes pretty outrageous activities, such as striking up a friendship with Graham’s ex-wife, Elspeth, whom he hasn’t seen in twelve years. In case you’re wondering, yup, Graham left Elspeth for the much younger Audra.

Katherine Heiny’s episodic novel takes us up and down the streets of Manhattan for the adventures of Graham and Audra; their ten-year-old son, Matthew; and Elspeth. Audra leads the way with hilarious monologues. For example, at an origami convention to which Graham and Audra have taken Matthew, Audra exclaims impatiently while waiting in a queue,  “‘What I don’t understand about origami . . . is why can’t anyone like it a little bit? Why aren’t there nice, well-rounded people who enjoy a bit of origami, the way there are nice, well-rounded people who enjoy a bit of bondage?’”(110) Wherever Audra treads, innocent bystanders reel in shock.

But hidden in plain sight in this book is a serious examination of the difficulties of raising a child with autism spectrum disorder. The doctor diagnosing Matthew tells the parents, “’Matthew’s score on the questionnaires for oversensitivity to stimulation ranked more than a full standard deviation above the range for children his age.’” (232) This passage is where we finally find out what the title of the novel means. Heiny presents the case of young Matthew with clear-eyed, unsparing detail, and she presents his parents as devoted unreservedly to helping him become an independent adult. The plot of Standard Deviation trails off in about the final third of the book, but that may be to give the impression of how the lives of Graham and Audra and Matthew will continue in the same vein.

The third-person narrative of the novel is told mainly from Graham’s point of view, and Heiny offers us plenty of Graham’s musings on his family situation:

  • “Who was this doctor to say that because of standard deviation, Matthew stood firmly on the stark cracked-earth desert of Asperger’s, that he would never feel the long cool green shade of normal?” (232)
  • “Graham had been developing a theory lately that the parents of kids with Asperger’s also had Asperger’s only less pronounced. A milder Asperger’s. The seeds of Asperger’s . . . Of all the dozens of special-needs kids’ parents he knew, one parent of every couple always seemed a bit odd, a bit eccentric, a bit Aspergery.” (212)

Indeed, one wonders how Matthew’s mother, Audra, would be diagnosed.

After writing a draft of this review, I read some other major reviews. I was surprised that the reviewers focused on the relationship triangle of Graham, Audra (his current wife), and Elspeth (his ex-wife). That was certainly a sub-plot in the novel, but I found the relationship between Matthew and his parents (Graham and Audra) much more significant. Neither the highly amusing dialogue nor the Manhattan scenery detracts from this book’s thoughtful treatment of the issue of autism.

Repression in Ireland

The Heart’s Invisible Furies     John Boyne     (2016)

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In first-person fictional narrative, Irishman Cyril Avery, adopted son of Charles and Maude Avery, tells us his life story, in bursts every seven years from 1945 to 2015. Cyril starts with a detailed description of his own birth to the unmarried Catherine Goggin, and we know that he must have learned these details from Catherine herself. So we keep waiting for the page on which Cyril finds his birth mother. Be patient, reader, because that page does eventually arrive.

First we get a full account of growing up gay in an Ireland that was dominated by the Catholic Church. The tale is brutal but realistic—novelist John Boyne himself likely suffered some of the violence and indignities described. And Boyne does not confine himself to homophobia in Ireland. His character Cyril lives as an expatriate in Amsterdam and New York for many years. Amsterdam in 1980, though a tolerant city overall, is home to vicious pimps who exploit “rent boys.” New York City in 1987 is the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic, which many Americans saw as a punishment by God for homosexuality.

The cast of The Heart’s Invisible Furies includes straight women who are ostracized by Irish society because of their pregnancies, adoptive parents who are unloving, straight men who assault gays, and gays who strike back. Somehow, Cyril survives, and his tenacity is amazing. He tries hard to comprehend the antagonism toward him:

”’Why do they hate us so much anyway?’ I asked after a lengthy pause. ‘If they’re not queer themselves, then what does it matter to them if someone else is?’

‘I remember a friend of mine telling me that we hate what we fear in ourselves,’ she said with a shrug. ‘Perhaps that has something to do with it.’” (224-225)

I do have some criticisms of The Heart’s Invisible Furies. The text can veer into didacticism as Boyne gives voice to “the heart’s invisible furies,” a line from a WH Auden poem. I found the ending weak in comparison with the rest of the novel—I’m guessing that Boyne used unconventional narrative techniques in order to take his readers right to the very end of Cyril’s life. In addition, I was able to spot a few minor anachronisms because I lived in Dublin myself back in the early 1970s. None of these issues leads me to discourage potential readers.

The status of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland is today much different than it was in previous centuries. Investigations in recent decades have revealed sexual abuses by priests and severe maltreatment of women and their children in church-run homes for unwed mothers. At least partially because of these scandals, far fewer Irish citizens now attend Mass, and the power of the church over sexuality has lessened. Although the Irish constitution still forbids abortion, homosexual activity was decriminalized in 1993. Same-sex marriage was adopted in 2015 by popular referendum. In 2017, Leo Varadkar became the first openly gay Irish prime minister.

To get the most from John Boyne's dark and powerful novel, you might want to do a quick review of the history of Ireland and familiarize yourself with Irish terms like "Taoiseach" (prime minister) and "Dáil Éireann" (parliament). It’s well worth the effort.

An 18th-Century Romp in NYC

Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York     Francis Spufford     (2017)

When the English prose novel debuted as a genre in the eighteenth century, it was usually characterized by realism, episodic structure, and the adventures of a hero. With Golden Hill, Francis Spufford replicates many aspects of the early novel while producing more sprightly and less rambling text. Golden Hill is set in 1746 New York City and stars Richard Smith, a Briton on a mysterious mission in the pre-Revolution American colonies.

Smith lands in Manhattan on the rainy evening of November 1, carrying a sort of money order for the enormous sum of a thousand pounds. When he attempts to collect his cash at a firm affiliated with the London firm on which the order is drawn, he understandably comes under suspicion. This may be ancient New York, but it’s still New York, and bankers seek verification. Besides, cash is in short supply in the colonies, where barter and paper money of fluctuating value serve instead.

During a waiting period of sixty days to receive—or not receive—the funds, Smith becomes intimately acquainted with the city of seven thousand souls that already has a “Broad Way” and a “Breuckelen.” He breakfasts at a coffee house and dines with the power brokers of the city. He celebrates “Pope Day” (Guy Fawkes Day, November 5) with the British inhabitants and “Sinterklaasavond” (St. Nicholas’ Eve, December 5) with the Dutch. Novelist Spufford vividly describes the local customs of colonial New York as his character Smith gets into all sorts of scrapes, acts in an amateur theater production, and falls in love with an independent-minded woman.

Sections of Golden Hill do have the ring of eighteenth-century prose, but in other sections Spufford  takes off with paragraphs that sound more contemporary. Here he is describing falling snow:

“. . .the powdery fall was already furring the cobbles with a thin grey nap like velvet, and rimming them white along all the crooked lines between. Everything seemed slowed to the speed of the descending snow. A holy expectation reigned in the thickening air, and passers-by walked as if they did not want to disturb it. Only a small party . . . made any noise. They were singing something, and carrying a small lantern on a pole which lit the flakes to swarming gold in a small globe around itself, and touched the edges of their faces—the line of a hat, the scroll of an ear, the filaments of a beard—with shadowy gilding, like statues in an ancient shrine.” (182)

Spufford’s similes can be striking:

“The awkwardness between them that danger and hilarity had dissolved was drifting back into place, like a sediment in a briskly-shaken bottle that, when shaking ceases, begins to float down again.” (89)

“When a log that has lain half-burned in a winter fire is struck suddenly with the poker, a bright lace of communicative sparks wakes on the instant. The sullen coals shatter into peach and scarlet mosaic, with a thin high tinkling sound, and pulses of the changing shades pass over the surface in all directions with rapidity too great for the eye. So it was when the news of Smith’s disgraceful liaison was suddenly released into the town.” (225)

Spufford conceals the purpose of Smith’s trip to New York until the close of the novel. I usually downrate a mystery if the author does not abide by the fair-play rule, which dictates that facts known to the protagonist cannot be  hidden from the reader. I gave Spufford a pass on this one, however, since Golden Hill is much more than a mystery. It’s an eighteenth-century romp with a serious message about justice at the end—and a coda from that independent-minded woman whom Smith met in New York.

An Accidental Thriller

You Belong to Me     Colin Harrison     (2017)

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Somehow I missed the word “thriller” in the blurbs about this book. Thrillers give me nightmares, so I rarely read them. I thought that You Belong to Me was a literary novel about a map collector. Hah!

Paul Reeves, a 50-year-old collector of old maps of New York City, is indeed a central character, but his quest to acquire rare and pricey specimens is only one of several plot lines that novelist Harrison leads his readers through. Paul’s girlfriend, Rachel, has a little scheme of her own. Then there’s the story of Billy, a tough former Army Ranger from Texas navigating contemporary New York as he tries to win back his gorgeous girlfriend, Jennifer, who’s now married to someone else. That someone else is Ahmed, a prominent Iranian-American financier with relatives who came through the 1979 revolution in Iran with plenty of guerilla survival skills. And guerilla tactics are part of the arsenal of Mexican bodybuilder and hitman Hector, who also gets involved. All of these plots play out on the streets of New York, as we elbow through the lunchtime crowds in Rockefeller Center to reach Christie’s for a map auction, as we creep down a squalid back street behind a grimy weight-lifting gym, as we careen along the Belt Parkway with a murderer in pursuit.

Yes, several gruesome murders take place in the noir New York of You Belong to Me. I tried to zip through those passages quickly, lingering more over paragraphs such as this one, describing a map from 1776: “The large map showed, in stunning detail, the charming young city of New York set amid farm fields, swamps, ponds, streams, and woods, complete with harbor soundings in fathoms. Only months later, in September of that year, much of the southern tip of the city would be consumed in a ghastly fire that broke out in a bordello frequented by British sailors . . . The map also depicted the quaint little village of Brooklyn, spelled ‘Brookland’, and nearby the marshy water of Wallabout Bay . . . The map’s lines were crisp, the detail so magnificent that actual wisps of smoke from individual houses were depicted. Such beauty and precision and provenance made the map fantastically important.” (78)

The title of the novel reveals the theme that unites the narrative: possession. Paul wants to own precious maps of his beloved city. Rachel decides that Paul should belong to her and her alone. Billy and Ahmed both want to possess Jennifer. Hitman Hector wants to acquire the money that is owed to him. Watch out for that greed, New Yorkers! Colin Harrison has your number, and he punches it with impudence and sass. You Belong to Me is the proverbial page-turner, with rapid-fire action and snappy dialogue, but the characters, with all their failings and evil deeds, are strangely endearing. Read this one even if, like me, you don’t usually care for thrillers.

The Immigrant Experience

The Leavers     Lisa Ko     (2017)

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Adoption has been the subject of several books I’ve reviewed recently, including Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, Celine, Leaving Lucy Pear, and The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane. The yearning of some adopted children to find their birth mothers—or of birth mothers to find their biological children—can be a powerful theme for a novel. Lisa Ko takes a slightly different approach to adoption, and in the process she illuminates the lives of undocumented immigrants in the United States. The immigrants in this story work long hours in difficult jobs to provide food and shelter for their loved ones. They have to make heart-rending decisions in their struggle to survive. As the dust jacket tells us, “The Leavers won the 2016 PEN Bellwether Prize for Fiction, awarded by Barbara Kingsolver for a novel that addresses issues of social justice.”

In The Leavers, Deming Guo was born in the United States, but his mother, Polly/Peilan, is an undocumented immigrant from Fujian province in China. She owes large sums to the loan shark who brought her to New York. One day when Deming is in fifth grade in the Bronx, Polly fails to return from her job at a nail salon and disappears from his life. Deming is fostered and then adopted by a well-meaning but misguided white couple in upstate New York and renamed Daniel Wilkinson. Deming/Daniel is the only Asian kid in the quiet community where he spends his teen years, and he constantly longs for his old city neighborhood and for any information about what happened to his birth mother. As novelist Lisa Ko encapsulates the problem, “If he could just talk to his mother in person, maybe he could figure out who he should be.” (270)

As Daniel moves into his twenties, he becomes involved in the music scene in New York City, as a composer and performer.  He routinely experiences synesthesia: “Never had there been a time when sound, color, and feeling hadn’t been intertwined, when a dirty, rolling bass line hadn’t included violets that suffused him with thick contentment, when the shades of certain chords sliding up to one another hadn’t produced dusty pastels that made him feel like he was cupping a tiny, golden bird.” (71) And music keeps him going when he sees no other future for himself:  “A song had a heart of its own, a song could jumpstart or provide solace; only music could numb him more thoroughly than weed or alcohol.” (258)

Polly and Daniel both have their flaws—Polly is often self-centered, Daniel develops a gambling addiction. I think that these characteristics help to keep the novel from falling into clichés. The Leavers alternates between Daniel’s side of the story and Polly’s, between New York and China, gradually revealing what happened on that day when Polly vanished. Did she take the bus to Florida, where she’d talked about relocating? Did the loan shark send her back to China? Did she leave her son (as well as her kindly boyfriend) for a new lover? Did she get hit by a truck? I won’t spoil the ending. I will say that, although the reason for Polly’s disappearance makes sense, the reason for her long-term absence from Daniel’s life doesn’t ring true for me.

However, as usual, I loved the parts of The Leavers that were set in New York City, which is beloved by Daniel:  “Daniel saw the Manhattan skyline, recognized the sketched spire of the Empire State Building, the sparkle of bridges, and from this vantage point the city appeared vulnerable and twinkling, the last strands of sunshine swept across the arches as if lulling them to sleep, painting shadows against the tops of buildings. No matter how many times he saw the city’s outline he pitched inside.” (110)

There are many kinds of “leaving” in this novel. Polly leaves China, and then she leaves her son. Daniel leaves the Bronx, but then he leaves upstate New York to return to the city. In a way, all of us are “leavers,” since we make choices in life that involve leaving other options behind.

Procreational Shenanigans

The Heirs     Susan Rieger     (2017)

Five sons are the beneficiaries of the estate of Rupert Falkes, who dies in the first chapter of The Heirs. Or maybe there are seven sons, since it comes to light after Rupert’s death that he may have had a mistress and family on the side. But then again, maybe he didn’t.

This witty novel has a large cast of characters who populate its complex plot, which lurches back and forth in time. Novelist Susan Rieger fleshes out the personalities of the five sons quite well, but it’s the mother, Eleanor, widow of Rupert Falkes, whom readers come to know best.  “Rupert married Eleanor because she was the girl of the year in 1960, because all the other men he knew wanted her, because she knew the difference between sarcasm and irony, because she was a knockout, because she’d read George Orwell, because she was sexually electrifying, because he could talk to her.” (13) Later in the novel we learn that “she was a MILF before there was a word for it.” (205) Okay, then, you should get the drift: sexual adventuring is a theme in The Heirs.

The family doesn’t need the money that Rupert leaves. They’re all filthy rich in their own right. It’s the inheritance of uncertainty about Rupert’s past that dominates their discussions and Rieger’s analyses of their discussions. Rupert was a self-made man, an orphan who was left as an infant on a church doorstep in England in 1934 and rose to be a prominent New York lawyer. His family thought they knew him. Eleanor was from well-established American bloodlines and brought wealth to the marriage. She’s more inscrutable, but she’s fully adept at social graces, like knowing not to wear white shoes after Labor Day.

Rupert’s sideline in sons isn’t the only procreational plot in The Heirs. For instance, Rupert’s gay son, Sam, longs desperately for a child of his own. And the wife of an early boyfriend of Eleanor’s wonders if her husband might be the father of at least some of Eleanor’s kids. The liaisons get mighty tangled.

Like her characters, Rieger is acerbic and sophisticated, willing to insert barbs no matter how sharp and providing a glimpse into the lives of the elitist ultra-wealthy. Despite, or perhaps because of, the furious pace and the elements of retroactive continuity, The Heirs is deliciously entertaining. And if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I’m a sucker for novels set in New York. Check out other reviews in the New York Novels category from the Archive of Book Reviews in the right column.

A Dystopian America

The Mandibles:  A Family, 2029-2047     Lionel Shriver     (2016)

Hang onto your hat. The year is 2029, and Russia and China now rule the world. The economy of the United States has crashed spectacularly, because of the national debt run up by the Latinos who control the federal government. All savings and investments are worthless, inflation is uncontrolled, jobs have disappeared, and ordinary citizens have become scavengers and thieves to stay alive. Guns, though forbidden, are essential. Despite the dire situation, elderly Americans continue to be cosseted, through programs such as Social Security and Medicare, because they are reliable voters. (Somehow, voting isn’t disrupted.)

Caught in this maelstrom are four generations of the Mandible family, New Yorkers who used to be upper middle class. Over the course of the eighteen years that this novel covers, most members of the Mandible clan survive and eventually escape to a locale (I won’t reveal where) that has created an isolationist libertarian paradise, basing its economy on the gold standard, with a flat tax and no social services. In other words, Lionel Shriver’s book is not just an echo of Ayn Rand but a loud, clanging reverberation.

A “mandible” is a jawbone, and in this novel the Mandibles exercise their jawbones frequently to expound on political and financial issues. I grew weary of the ultra-right-wing screeds against the Federal Reserve and against non-white people. There were even snide references to Chelsea Clinton and someone named (ha-ha-ha) Krugman. Almost all the characters whom Shriver presents as reasonable and civilized humans espouse views that are economically untenable and, to me, morally reprehensible.

Yet I kept reading through to page 402 in order to follow the threads of daily life in Shriver’s dystopian scenario. As housing becomes scarce in the years after 2029, more and more of the Mandibles crowd into one home, inevitably creating scenes of interpersonal conflict. What do you do when there is no more toilet paper and very limited water supply? How do you stretch a cup of rice to feed a crowd? These conundrums of human existence in a sadly debased America are sometimes solved in clever ways. And some of the future language that Shriver injects into the dialogue is amusing, if flippant. For example, since the very aged Baby Boomers are pariahs, the word that replaces “crap” is “boomerpoop.”

A couple of the characters in The Mandibles are intrepid in the face of disaster. The hero of the Mandible family turns out to be Willing, who is thirteen years old in 2029 and comes of age as he teaches himself advanced survival skills. He’s the one who leads the way to the promised land of libertarianism. Another Mandible, Avery, who is middle-aged at the start of the novel, blossoms: “Things seemed to matter again. It seemed to matter how she spent her time and what she told her children. Why, it was tempting to wonder whether, while the likes of the Stackhouses were musing idly over whether to cover the footstool in taupe or mauve, folks on the margins were living real lives, and making real decisions, and conducting real relationships, full of friction and shouting and moment—whether all this time the poor people had been having all the fun.” (188)

But mostly The Mandibles is a book about ugliness. Kindly people die. Hard-nosed scammers prosper. The only African American character has advanced dementia and is kept tied up.  As Carter Mandible, an unemployed economist, pronounces, “It’s the decent people who always get fucked.” (125)

The Mandibles did prod me to consider the place of the Unites States in history. Shriver puts these same considerations into the mind of my favorite character, Florence, early in the book: “She didn’t think about being American often, though that may have been typically American in itself. She didn’t regard being American as especially formative of her character, and that may have been typically American, too. . .  For years now it had ceased to be controversial to suppose that the era of the ‘American Empire’ was fading, and the notion that her country may already have had its day in the sun she didn’t find upsetting. Plenty of other countries had flourished and subsided, and were reputed to be pleasant places to live. She didn’t see why being a citizen of a nation in decline should diminish her own life or make her feel personally discouraged.” (74)

Novels about Paintings, Part 2

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos     Dominic Smith     (2016)

As I read this novel, I assumed that the title painting, the last painting of Sara de Vos, was At the Edge of a Wood. The creation of this fictional work of art is placed in 1636, as de Vos is grieving the death of her only child, a daughter, from the plague. The painting shows a dark-haired girl in the foreground, barefoot in the snow, watching a group of skaters on the frozen river beyond. It’s dusk in winter in the Netherlands, so the quality of light is otherworldly.

According to novelist Dominic Smith’s complex story, At the Edge of a Wood has been owned by the de Groot family for more than three hundred years, and it’s considered by some to have caused bad luck for the owners. Marty de Groot, the owner we meet in Manhattan in 1957, certainly hasn’t suffered financially, but Marty’s law career is stalled, and he and his wife are unable to have children.

Also in 1957 but in Brooklyn, the novelist introduces us to Ellie Shipley, an Australian graduate student in art history at Columbia University. She’s trying to finish her PhD dissertation about female painters of the Dutch Golden Age, and she does art restoration work to support herself. Along comes a commission, not to restore but to copy a painting by (wait for it) a female painter of the Dutch Golden Age: At the Edge of a Wood. Ellie wades in, not so much for the money as for the technical and artistic challenge of reproducing a stunning painting. This is, of course, forgery.

Forty-odd years later, in 2000, Ellie is an esteemed art historian and curator in Sydney, Australia. As she’s gathering paintings on loan from around the world for an exhibit, it becomes apparent that both the original At the Edge of a Wood and the copy she painted will be arriving in Sydney. The forgery will be revealed, and since Ellie is the only person who could have painted the copy, she sees her comfortable life crumbling before her.  

The book moves back and forth effortlessly among three settings:  The Netherlands 1636-1649 (dark, burgher-ruled); New York, 1957-1958 (shiny, jazz-filled); and Sydney, 2000 (sunny, cosmopolitan). The characters of Sara de Vos, Marty de Groot, and Ellie Shipley—all drawn convincingly—move through these settings and through their interconnected lives.  

Novelist Smith does an excellent job of rendering visual art in words, and not only in the passages where he describes paintings. References to the light in a scene come in frequently. For example, here is Ellie on the subway in New York City: “She always has the sensation of being swallowed by the roaring dark of the first tunnel, her ears popping and the sudden appearance of her reflection on the blackened windowpane like some hangdog daguerreotype from another century.“ (208) And here is Marty, in his office at night after committing a terrible deed: “He’s never been up here at night and there’s a sensation of being fortified behind glass, of something solid between him and the mercantile canyons of the city. The office buildings are phosphorescent through the darkness, effulgent with a smoky light that reminds him of dry ice.” (249).

By the end of the novel, you’ll know what the last painting of Sara de Vos actually was. I’ll leave you with this summation of the plot: “You carry grudges and regrets for decades, tend them like graveside vigils, then even after you lay them down they linger on the periphery, waiting to ambush you all over again.” (262)

Four Novels in One

4 3 2 1      Paul Auster     (2017)

Do not read other reviews of this novel before you read the novel itself! All the reviews--except for mine!--give away too much of the plot and spoil the revelations, good and bad.

Paul Auster has created a mesmerizing series of narratives by mixing up four novels in one book. The protagonist in all four, Archie Ferguson, bears the Scottish surname that his grandfather received at Ellis Island, but he’s Jewish American, born in Newark in 1947. His life story through early adulthood plays out in four distinctly different ways, depending on choices made by Archie himself and by his family members and friends. The author doles out these four stories in segments, taking us through the phases of Archie’s young life, and he helpfully labels each segment. (There are four versions of chapter 1, four versions of chapter 2, and so forth.)

Some elements of Archie’s personality and tastes carry into multiple stories. Archie is always a good athlete, either in baseball or basketball. He’s sexually active at an early age. One of his bed partners is Amy Schneiderman, who in different versions of the story is his stepsister, cousin, or family friend. Sometimes the Archies have the same experience, as when a professor at Columbia gives two different Archies a copy of the university’s literary magazine. In all four of the narratives, Archie seems to have a preponderance of tragic, early deaths surrounding him, including death by car accident, lightning strike, brain aneurysm, and fire.

As you read 4 3 2 1, you could make a spreadsheet to keep track of all the plot elements, but I recommend that instead you let the stories flow over you. Auster’s extremely long compound complex sentences encourage this latter approach, since the words stream seamlessly down the pages, pulling you along.

4 3 2 1 is about how everyday decisions of everyday people can have long-term ramifications, both for themselves and for those surrounding them. Within the novel, Auster has the characters themselves analyze the phenomenon of choices that change lives:

“ . . . from the beginning of his conscious life, [Archie had] the persistent feeling that the forks and parallels of the roads taken and not taken were all being traveled by the same people at the same time, the visible people and the shadow people, and that the world as it was could never be more than a fraction of the world, for the real also consisted of what could have happened but didn’t, that one road was no better or worse than any other road, but the torment of being alive in a single body was that at any given moment you had to be on one road only, even though you could have been on another, traveling toward an altogether different place.”

Reading all 866 pages of 4 3 2 1 takes serious commitment. You are more likely to keep turning those pages if you enjoy novels about the 1960s in America. When I saw that Archie Ferguson was born in 1947, I immediately calculated that he would come of age in the 1960s, during the Vietnam War, when young American males were subject to the draft, and those drafted males were almost always sent to the jungles of Southeast Asia. Novelist Auster confronts this cruel fact in four different ways, and watching him do it is intriguing. Paul Auster was himself born in 1947, so he knows whereof he writes, though I would caution against reading 4 3 2 1 as a memoir or autobiography, despite the metafictional echoes of the novel’s closing pages.

One of the four Archie Fergusons, studying at Columbia University on a draft deferment, muses: "The postwar children born in 1947 had little in common with the wartime children born just two and three years earlier, a generational rift had opened up in that short span of time, and whereas most of the upperclassmen still bought into the lessons they had learned in the 1950s, Ferguson and his friends understood that they were living in an irrational world, a country that murdered its presidents and legislated against its citizens and sent its young men off to die in senseless wars, which meant that they were more fully attuned to the realities of the present than their elders were.”

Another theme that I pick up from 4 3 2 1 is the way wealth—or the lack of it—affects life choices dramatically. Here is one example, right after one of the Archies has come into some cash:

“Thousands of dollars were sitting in his account at the First National City Bank on the corner of West 110th Street and Broadway, and just knowing they were there, even if he had no particular desire to spend them, relieved him of the obligation to think about money seven hundred and forty-six times a day, which in the end was just as bad if not worse than not having enough money, for these thoughts could be excruciating and even murderous, and not having to think them anymore was a blessing. That was the one true advantage of having money over not having money, he decided—not that you could buy more things with it but that you no longer had to walk around with the infernal thought bubble hanging over your head.”

And then there’s New York City of the 1960s, conjured up by Auster with all its grit and glamor, and I can seldom resist New York novels. As one character comments, “New York is it.”

Brooklyn Satire

Class     Lucinda Rosenfeld     (2017)

Karen Kipple is a contemporary Brooklynite in her mid-forties, with a listless husband, a third-grader named Ruby, and a job at a nonprofit that feeds hungry children. This setup could be boring, but novelist Lucinda Rosenfeld tracks the story toward the absurd with biting satire and probing questions about progressive politics.

Karen obsesses about everything, measuring her actions, and those of others, against a standard that’s impossible to achieve. For example, she worries about the junk food that Ruby’s classmates eat, but then she overanalyzes: “Along with weight, teeth, and marriage, food had somehow become a dividing line between the social classes, with the Earth Day-esque ideals of the 1960s having acquired snob appeal, and the well-off and well-educated increasingly buying ‘natural’ and ‘fresh’ and casting aspersions on those who didn’t.” (19-20)

So, while Karen gets upset about kids eating junk food, she then internally castigates herself for her classism. And, despite the title of this novel, race looms large in Karen’s obsessions also. The African American kids in Ruby’s school have names that irritate Karen, until she realizes that the purposely antiquated names of the white kids (Prudence, Violet, Silas, Leo, and even Ruby) can be seen as pretentious in a different way.

This tug-of-war within Karen plays out over and over. Karen lives much of her life through Ruby, and she worries constantly about every single interaction that the poor child has with other children. “It alarmed and excited her to think that her daughter was only two degrees of separation away from the kind of people who got evicted.” (87) Karen is both alarmed and excited throughout this novel.

The plot in Class mainly revolves around Karen’s decision to pull Ruby out of the local minority-white public school she’s attending and fraudulently enroll her in a nearby all-white public school. Karen doesn’t even tell her husband about her maneuver. And this act of betrayal of her liberal values is one of a series of outrageous exploits, involving preposterous lies, marital infidelity, and embezzlement. As Karen plunges off a metaphorical cliff, readers may want to grab her by her hair and shake her!

The ancillary characters in Class are stereotypes broadly and often humorously drawn: the non-communicative husband who watches television sports, the obnoxious PTA president, the selfish billionaire. In conversations with them, Karen ranges from timid to frank to confrontational. I found this variability unconvincing, but perhaps Karen vacillates verbally as a reflection of her unease with her social convictions.

I’ve reviewed a number of novels set in New York that wavered on the edge of satire; see one of my posts here. There’s no question that Class is a satire, striking at the shibboleths of the left. It will make you squirm as you think about exactly why you hold the beliefs that you do, no matter where on the political spectrum you sit.

Manhattan 1952/2016

The Dollhouse     Fiona Davis     (2016)

By chance, I’ve been reading and reviewing a number of novels set in New York City lately. If you’re weary of fictional trips to Manhattan, you may want to skip to another blog post. If you’re up for one more saunter down those fabled sidewalks, here we go.

In The Dollhouse, Fiona Davis jumps back and forth between the years 1952 and 2016 to draw fictional portraits of women who live in the same building in New York City, separated by sixty-four years. The building, depicted on the book’s cover, is real. The Barbizon Hotel for Women, built on the Upper East Side in 1927, was home to generations of young females pursuing careers as editors, models, and secretaries. After the hotel was converted to condos in 2005, one floor was set aside as rent-controlled apartments for long-time residents, and this is where 1952 meets 2016.

Darby McLaughlin is the main 1952 character, fresh out of high school and freshly arrived at the Barbizon from Defiance, Ohio, to attend the famed Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School, with tuition paid by her deceased father’s life insurance proceeds. The innocent and awkward Darby gets caught up in a plot of sex, drugs, and bebop, centering around a sleazy jazz club.

Rose Lewin is the main 2016 character, a former local television news star in her mid-thirties, now working for an Internet news startup. At the beginning of the novel, the sophisticated and savvy Rose is living in her boyfriend’s condo in the Barbizon. She’s soon facing both personal and professional crises, as she decides to research and write about the octogenarian women in the Barbizon, who came of age in a distant, almost mythical, era.

The narrative of The Dollhouse is slow to accelerate. I looked forward to the 2016 chapters as I cringed my way through the 1952 chapters, in which Darby is ridiculed and deceived by her hallmates at the Barbizon. The pace picks up when the modern-day Rose becomes obsessed with the events of 1952 and unlayers a key mystery, using reportorial tactics that she knows are unethical.

Darby and Rose are convincing characters, as are several of the supporting cast. The descriptions of Rose’s boorish young boss, Tyler, are trenchant. In one meeting with Rose, “he held a pen under his nose as if it were a mustache, curled up his lip to support it without any hands.” Tyler performs this maneuver while making misogynist comments about Rose’s writing project. Less successful is the depiction of Jason Wolf, a potential love interest for Rose. Jason appears in the story too fortuitously and is too much of a hunk.

Sylvia Plath keeps popping up in The Dollhouse, too. She actually lived at the Barbizon during the summer of 1953 when she was an intern in New York City, and she refers to the hotel in The Bell Jar. This association becomes a running joke in The Dollhouse, as Rose assures one interviewee after another that she is not writing another story about Plath.

The Barbizon itself has a central role in The Dollhouse, titled for the name that young men in New York presumably gave the building back in the day. It’s possible that Fiona Davis chose her title also as an echo of Ibsen’s The Doll’s House, the controversial 1879 drama about the place of women in the home and in society. Davis wades in to the continuing controversy. Is Rose too dependent on the approval of the men in her life? Does Darby make too many sacrifices for the men (and women) in hers? Are teenaged girls always a little crazy? Can their fathers rescue them with (a) kindness or (b) tough love? Are 2016 women different from 1952 women in substance or only in terminology? And is their place in American society really much different?

Those New York Novels

The Ramblers     Aidan Donnelley Rowley (2016)

(plus brief notes on novels by Adelle Waldman and Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney)

First, a sidebar.

Maybe I should stop reading these inbred New York City novels. Maybe only New Yorkers can sense where the satire starts. But I read a lot of fiction, and I’ve taught fiction to a lot of college students, so I should be able to discern satire, right? Even if I’m a Midwesterner?

I look back at a couple of other New York novels. I’m pretty certain that Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. (2013) is sardonically mocking the callous, self-satisfied male New Yorkers who wreak havoc on the psyches of brilliant, sensitive female New Yorkers. Waldman’s view into this world is morbidly fascinating but morbid nonetheless.

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest (2016) is less clear on the satire front. Four siblings fight over their inheritance, which has been greatly depleted by a payout to cover up a crime by one of the brothers. Should I care about the quarrels of these disagreeable, money-grubbing characters, even if the plot is a tight one? Am I supposed to care, or am I supposed to recoil in horror?

This issue is not settled, but let’s move on to the main review.

The Ramblers, by Aidan Donnelley Rowley (2016), brings us three more New Yorkers who have too much money and too many drinks. Admittedly, Clio Marsh was born middle class, but she’s pulled herself up by the proverbial bootstraps to earn a PhD in ornithology. And she lives nearly rent-free as roommate to Smith Anderson, a daughter of the 1% who declutters the Manhattan apartments of her private clients. The third profiled character is Tate Pennington, who has accidentally made a fortune in the tech world and retired to New York to take street photographs and escape his estranged wife in California.

All three are in their mid-30s, yet they prate endlessly about their undergraduate days together at Yale and enter into petty squabbles about the relative advantages of Princeton. Really? So you’ve read Foucault. I’m not impressed, though I think that the author, herself a Yalie, expects her readers to be.

Because the three protagonists are in their mid-thirties, they all long to be in committed relationships. This is a standard feature of the modern New York novel, though it’s usually only the women or the gay men who crave a long-lasting, monogamous marriage. The entire plot of The Ramblers revolves around the achievement of perfect domestic partnerships, but I couldn’t feel much sympathy for these three privileged strivers. They’re stock characters in a flat drama. Clio worries that the revelation of her mother’s mental illness and suicide will derail her affair with a wealthy bachelor fifteen years her senior. Smith won’t distance herself from her malicious father, even though this creepy father browbeat her fiancé into breaking up with her. And Tate salves the wounds made by his unfaithful wife with excessive amounts of alcohol, but he still shoots stunning photos.

The dialogue of the thirty-something women in The Ramblers does have sparkle, but when I hit some scenes with older women or with men (older or not), I found myself stopped mid-page by the inaptness of tone and the cliché-ridden sentences. Wait, I thought, is the author satirizing this character? We’re back to that issue of inadvertent satire again.

If I’m so irritated by these self-aggrandizing characters and their $30 bottles of organic hair conditioner, why do I keep reading New York novels? Why did I ever get past page 50 of The Ramblers? Simple: I have a weakness for the New York part.

For instance, the title of The Ramblers refers to an area in Central Park called The Ramble, a semi-wild nature area in the middle of Manhattan, popular for those seeking outdoor gay sex, which has also become a favored site for birdwatchers. The character Clio leads public birding tours through The Ramble on Sunday mornings and gets written up in the local press. Tate, meanwhile, is a walking guide book to the poetic and architectural history of the city, seeking out the haunts of Stanley Kunitz and Dylan Thomas. Smith’s sister gets married in the cavernous, barrel-vaulted St. Bart’s Episcopal Church, with the reception at the ultra-glamorous Waldorf. The action of the novel takes place during the week of Thanksgiving, so the author can call up glorious late autumn days as well as the edge of silver-bell cheeriness for the upcoming Christmas season. In sum, the NYC of The Ramblers is more vividly portrayed than its inhabitants.

True, for heavy New York atmosphere, you can’t beat author Jay McInerney, and I’ve acknowledged this in a recent blog post reviewing his 2016 novel Bright, Precious Days. I detect satire in some of McInerney’s characters, but he fleshes them out so well and surrounds them with so much New York detail that I tumble right into their lives nonetheless.

And for a weekly dose of New York, I turn to the New Yorker. I can imagine myself at the openings of art exhibits and plays listed at the front and then settle in for some serious journalism, not necessarily about New York, by writers like Adam Gopnik, Joan Acocella, Jill Lepore, Hilton Als, Larissa MacFarquhar, Elizabeth Kolbert, Kalefa Sanneh, Jane Mayer, and Ryan Lizza. Gotta love it.

McInerney's Manhattan Excess

Bright, Precious Days     Jay McInerney     (2016)

O, Russell! O, Corrine! O, pet ferret!  Bright, Precious Days, the third installment of the Russell-and-Corrine-story (readable as a standalone), finds them hitting age 50, with a TriBeCa loft that’s too expensive and too small for a family with school-age twins and a pet ferret. And note that TriBeCa always has those internal capital letters, so that you’re looking to the etymology and the map, knowing that Russell and Corrine, having consumed another absurdly extravagant and exotic restaurant meal, are heading home to the Triangle Below Canal Street.

The landmarks of Manhattan are as much characters in McInerney’s novels as the human actors. His New York City dazzles with all the expected urbanity and glitz and pop culture references. His descriptions of the turning of the seasons are particularly striking in their tropes of nostalgia. I’m there, at the top of the Empire State Building, wind in my hair, taking in the view.

I do need my regular dose of Manhattan hauteur and pomposity, if only to reassure myself that I’m content as a boring Midwesterner. McInerney delivers Manhattan full throttle: the wine snobs, the gourmands, the anorexics, the cab drivers, the gala attendees, the trophy wives, the crazed artists, the cocaine snorters. Good Lord, how do people ingest that much cocaine and live to tell the story? Well, some of them don’t live, that’s true.

From the beginning, the reader cringes with the knowledge that Russell’s publishing business is not thriving. Print books were in decline even in the mid-aughts, when the book opens, and although Russell may be the Max Perkins of the twenty-first century, his editing skills don’t translate to business savvy. The reader also has the advantage of knowing that the recession of 2008 is looming.

Corrine—who saw the light, sort of, after 9/11—has taken a job in the nonprofit sector, gleaning discarded vegetables to distribute to the poor, so she doesn’t contribute much income to the family. Corrine’s job does allow McInerney to give us a brief view of the 99% in New York City, with descriptions of the long lines of hungry people waiting to receive a dole of carrots or cabbages.

You don’t have to be an avid reader of mystery novels to guess how the storyline involving Russell’s business will play out in Bright Precious Days. The marital storyline is another matter. R-and-C have been married for twenty-five years, during which time they’ve both repeatedly cheated on and lied to each other. I want to shake them and tell them how selfish they are, how superficial and cliché-ridden their conversations are. I want to tell Corrine that to keep her weight down she should reduce her consumption of alcoholic beverages, not diet on lettuce and canned salmon. R-and-C live up to their surname, “Calloway,” in their adolescent ingenuousness and self-centeredness. The coincidences in the marital storyline strain belief, and the characters are on the edge of becoming caricatures. But I understand many of their flaws and want to know their next steps. I love to despise them.

And I love gazing on that Manhattan excess from afar.