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New York, New York

Maureen Corrigan’s review of The Scientists yesterday at NPR makes an interesting claim in its first paragraph. Marco Roth’s new memoir of growing up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the Eighties nudges Corrigan into a taxonomy of New York literature:

Every New York story ever written or filmed falls into one of two categories. The first — like Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, or the musical On the Town — regards New York as the representative American city, a jam-packed distillation of the country’s dreams and nightmares. The second group views New York as a foreign place — a city off the coast of the U.S. mainland that somehow drifted away from Paris or Mars.

The normal response to any two-part invention like this is to begin coughing up exceptions. (What about Edith Wharton’s Old New York? The Lower East Side and Jewish Brooklyn of Anzia Yezierska, Henry Roth, and Daniel Fuchs? The Harlem of Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin? The Queens of Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker?) The protesting sputter of exceptions may be the whole purpose of such an exercise, which can’t stand up to logical scrutiny on its own. To divide every “story ever written” into just two categories is to invite you to think about the stories carefully and in detail.

But I’m thinking about something else. Ever since I started book blogging four years ago, I have been moaning about “the almost complete disappearance of regionalism from American fiction” and groaning how very few writers these days are “striking roots in any single American soil.” It’s one of my tiresome little themes. Even when a novelist is successful in evoking the peculiar genius of a place — recent examples would include Michael Chabon’s borderland between Berkeley and Oakland in Telegraph Avenue, Pauls Toutonghi’s Butte in Evel Knievel Days, Richard Ford’s wind-blown prairie town in Canada — the place is not his native ground. Chabon’s previous novel was set in a possible (not an actual) Alaska; Toutonghi’s, in Milwaukee; Ford’s, in suburban New Jersey. The last true regionalist in American fiction may be Louise Erdrich, who maps the same corner of North Dakota where the Indian reservation collides with the white man’s town in novel after novel.

There have been New York regionalists. To think of Wharton as a New York regionalist is to arrive at a new appreciation of her. Francine Prose sticks close to the city — if the metropolitan region of New York stretches north to the Taconics, east to Fire Island, and west to the New Jersey suburbs. (There is nothing south of New York.) Paul Auster writes again and again of New York, although the unmarked intersection where fictional worlds meet physical reality is where he prefers to set up camp.

The truth is that New York is either an anthology of places — Cynthia Ozick’s Bronx, Jonathan Lethem’s Brooklyn, Alice McDermott’s Long Island, Richard Price’s Jersey City — or it is Manhattan, which can turn pretty quickly into a symbol rather than a human habitation (as in Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin). Even Saul Bellow, whose 1947 novel The Victim is one of the best books about the city, edges away from geography and into allegory:

On some nights New York is as hot as Bangkok. The whole continent seems to have moved from its place and slid nearer the equator, the bitter gray Atlantic to have become green and tropical, and the poeple, thronging the streets, barbaric fellahin among the stupendous monuments of their mystery, the lights of which, a dazzling profusion, climb upward endlessly into the heat of the sky.

The best New York book of all time is Alfred Kazin’s 1951 memoir A Walker in the City, because it explores Brooklyn at street level. That’s really the only way to know New York, which is why an entire literature is required to study the city as a whole. Early last year the novelist Edmund White named his choices for the ten best New York books. Not to duplicate him, I’ll list ten more (in chronological order):

  1. Abraham Cahan, The Rise of David Levinsky (1917)
  2. Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence (1920)
  3. Dawn Powell, Turn, Magic Wheel (1936)
  4. Ann Petry, The Street (1946)
  5. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
  6. Paule Marshall, Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959)
  7. Saul Bellow, Mr Sammler’s Planet (1970)
  8. Chang-rae Lee, Native Speaker (1995)
  9. Steven Millhauser, Martin Dressler (1997)
10. Zoë Heller, The Believers (2009)



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