There are many windows into our past. Few offer a view that is as detailed, as accurate or as absorbing as ‘Manhattan Beach.’
The protagonist in this lovely piece of historical fiction is a working-class girl of Irish descent, Anna Kerrigan. She is freakishly unlucky but stalwart, living in Depression-era New York City. The names of the neighborhoods she frequents are lit on road signs with the flickering, colored lights of gangsterism and industrialism that illuminated Gotham during the Roosevelt years. Most will have heard of Anna’s neighborhoods and will recognize the connotations that go with the names. These are the places around Sheepshead Bay where the Navy built battleships, where Syndicate underbosses ran jazz clubs and gambling parlors, where prostitutes and loan sharks were always at one’s elbow. This is the place and the time into which mobster John Gotti was born.
Most with an interest in history will know something about that setting and that time. Mentions of Oriental Boulevard and the Brighton Beach trolley might have you imagining snapshots of your Great Uncle Sal and his sailor buddies that hung on the wall at Grandma’s house. The author’s descriptions of the era might summon images of boys playing stickball, fried fish wrapped in newsprint, packs of Pall Malls pulled from pants pockets, men with slick hair who smell of Vitalis.
As a source of entertainment, ‘Manhattan Beach’ resembles production of a family meal in the days when dinner spent an hour in the oven before the preparation appeared to commence. The first 100 pages are all character, setting and backstory. They move a bit slowly. Only then does the narrative arc get pulled out of the icebox, two or three pieces at a time. That’s when our protagonist emerges as a grown woman and engages powerfully with the scariest parts of New York’s underbelly, far more than was typical for a woman, never seeming to lose her self-control or her focus. Her relationships with the men around her are, initially, defined by the rules of the era. Women were dependent beings. They were daughters, sisters, wives and, sometimes, worker bees, but almost never anything more. Anna was the one who refused to be held back any more than necessary. She was Lois Lane, if Lois Lane had worn a deep-sea diving suit. Her lover was Superman, if Superman was a wealthy racketeer who drove a Duesenberg. Some people admired her, but just as many were thinking that any woman who worked a job that didn’t involve teaching children or sewing was stealing paychecks from a man.
Ms. Egan’s earlier works are truly superb. And, in its own way, so is this book. It was dutifully researched and detailed. It will touch you: In scenes from a life raft on open ocean, ‘Manhattan Beach’ conveys a creeping feeling of desperation and a craving for clean water. It was written in compelling prose. Missing from this book is a key ingredient present in Ms. Egan’s earlier work: a soul. This book lacks meaning any deeper than the makeup worn by the singers in the seaside gin mills. There are references to the sea and all that it conceals, the thoughts and feelings that the sea inspires, but the references fail to assemble into a coherent picture. Any parallels between the narrative and modern life arrive in a miscellaneous and period-perfect mix – vintage pieces of costume jewelry, cuff links, Wendell Willkie campaign buttons and a few strings of nice pearls found jumbled in an antique lacquer box.
It is a great story masterfully researched and told. It is superb historical fiction. But it is not the literary fiction Ms. Egan has led us to expect and it follows a safe, comfortable path on the New York waterfront that scads of writers and historians have already walked.