Friday, March 6, 2009

Bridges to Brooklyn. . .

During my recent trip to New York, I was able to cross off one of the many items on my bucket list - walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. I'd been visiting Melville House which is located in the DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) district of Brooklyn. It's a very cool area with industrial buildings turned into offices, and lots of independent shops and restaurants, including Jacques Torres' Chocolate store, filled with delicious concoctions that even included chocolate-covered Cheerios. Dewey approved for sure!
Latte in hand, cereal in pocket, I walked back to Manhattan over the bridge at sunset which was the perfect magical time to do so - looking to my left, the Statue of Liberty was just a black smudge in the harbour, but ahead and to my right, the entire city was glowing. Truly a great experience. And in anticipation of this event, (I like to theme my life), my reading material on this trip was none other than two novels set in Brooklyn.
NYRB Classics is just re-issuing L.J. Davis's 1971 novel A Meaningful Life, with a new introduction by Jonathan Lethem - no stranger to Brooklyn himself. The jacket copy caught my attention right away, calling the novel, "a blistering black comedy about the American quest for redemption through real estate". Yes, it is but don't be fooled - this is no Wall Street tycoon tale. Call it also the story of one desperate man's attempt at rebirth through remodelling. (And who can't relate to that? I know if I could just get my apartment organized and decorated properly, my life would be perfect!)
Lowell Lake is an ordinary man trying to find some purpose in his life. He's married to a woman he doesn't really like, and with whom he has virtually nothing in common with. They have reluctantly moved to New York for no good reason, where Lowell painstakingly tries (and fails) to write a novel and is now stuck in a boring, dead-end job as the managing editor for a plumbing magazine. Just how miserable (and appallingly funny) his life gets is illustrated by this description of a dreaded visit to his ghastly inlaws:
"He always felt a little drunk at his in-laws' place, and afterward he had a funny hung-over feeling, as though they had put something in his coffee. Actually, they never put anything in his coffee, and he was lucky if he got any at all. When he did get some, it came in a different kind of cup from everybody's else's. He wondered if his mother-in-law kept the cup in a special place, wrapped up in a plastic bag."
To get over his apathy with existence, Lowell goes searching for the "stuff of life" and, based on his fuzzy memory of a magazine article, decides to tackle poverty, racism, and municipal corruption head on, by restoring an old mansion in Brooklyn to its former glory. The fact that the property is currently a decrepit rooming house that will eat up his entire savings in repair costs, plus it is filled with poor tenants, who far from engaging with, he now has to evict, is something Lowell hadn't quite bargained for. Many (mis) adventures ensue.
The writing is very sardonic and cynical, and watching Lowell's story unfold is akin to watching a train wreck in slow motion - again and again and again. The novel will appeal to readers of Richard Yates (it's funnier than Revolutionary Road but I think one could embark on endless cocktail debates as to which novel is more tragic - once a suitable definition of tragic is agreed upon) and I think Nick Hornby or Martin Amis fans would enjoy it as well.

Coming later this spring, Colm Tóibín's new novel is simply titled Brooklyn and while I don't want to post a full review before publication date, I can tell you that it is very different in tone. from A Meaningful Life. It's the story of Eilis Lacey, a shy young woman in the 1950s who leaves her family in a small Irish town to come to Brooklyn in search of work. A friendly priest finds her lodgings, gets her a job as a sales clerk in a department store and helps her enroll in night courses at the local college. Soon she meets Tony, an Italian plumber who falls in love with her. But when a family tragedy draws her back to Ireland, and her old familiar life, she has to decide where her future will lie. This is very much a novel filled with quiet - yet powerful - observances of life's insecurities precariously balanced against the potential of dreams and opportunities. Look for the novel in May.

Incidentally, an interview with Tóibín was just published in the Guardian about how he finds no pleasure in the process of writing. You can read it here. Lucky for us, this doesn't stop him from pursuing his craft.

1 comment:

InfoDesks said...

What perfect timing!

I've just started planning my first ever trip to NYC, and will be sure to add these to my list to read before I go.