I’d never read a single word of Jennifer Egan’s work until Manhattan Beach, released by Scribner this month, despite that Egan has published four previous novels and won the Pulitzer and a National Book Critics Award for A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010), a novel that has been acclaimed in effusive terms for its inventiveness and originality in all quarters of the literary community.
Everything I read about Goon Squad makes it seem like my type of book. Weird, futuristic, made-up languages; character-POV-shifting chapters … I don’t know how I missed it. Trust me it’s on deck.
Though I’m late to the party, I think it might give me a different perspective on Manhattan Beach. I read it as a straightforward, third-person novel set in the mid-20th century.
Nearly all the early reviews of this novel mention how different it is from Jennifer Egan’s previous work and in specific, often quite vociferously, from Goon Squad. For an author who has been exploratory and inventive with form, Manhattan Beach is a contrast, a historical period piece.
But it turns out Egan worked on this novel considerably longer than any others. She told Alexandra Schwartz in a long form interview for the New Yorker last week she had been working on it for the last 15 years, struggling to put together a story “anybody is going to want to read.”
I recommend it.
Manhattan Beach is an extremely well-researched and fast-paced story set predominantly in Brooklyn near the end of World War II that transports the reader to New York City in the mid-1940’s and fills it with presence and character. Egan has crafted an intriguing family story with which to reveal the city and the times, with particular focus on life in and around the Brooklyn Naval Yards.
The protagonists Anna Kerrigan and her father Eddie, and their family, friends, colleagues and enemies carve out their lives cast in the meager circumstances of a wartime economy that we know from history is coming to a close. Manhattan Beach takes us on a richly detailed tour of the corruption and culture of Brooklyn, New York, the Mafia and the Navy in a very particular period in history: the handful of years before the end of the war, between Pearl Harbor and the fateful flight of the Enola Gay.
It’s an American story about a Brooklyn family and how their life is changed in a tumult. The war hangs at a distance and we see the city – and in particular the Navy Yard and its surroundings as most young, able-bodied Americans are being sent abroad to fight.
Anna is a tremendously likable character and her journey at the Navy Yard to become a diver is a fascinating and well-detailed arc that weaves through the mystery and intrigue of her father’s disappearance and the nefarious underworld of the gangster Dexter Styles.
Egan’s style is crisp, well-researched and yet poetic when necessary. Balanced in approach, one doesn’t get a nostalgic feeling for this period, but rather a view of it as if through a veil. The story unfolds, characters slowly discover things and we get to see something we haven’t been able to see.
The sea – riding upon it, staying alive in it, walking in divers gear and trying to see through it – plays a significant role in this work and yet it, like the war in the distance functions more as a powerful medium for the development of the characters.
By contrast, the plumbing of Egan’s characters – their thoughts and emotions buffeted about by war, crime and sea change – is lucid and clear. Egan is excellent at interior monologue and reflection by her characters. She gets at rooted feelings with wide-open eyes. This often results in gorgeous passages.
The story includes a brilliantly imagined voyage on a merchant marine vessel named the Elizabeth Seaman. The nod to Nellie Bly goes unmentioned, a subtlety at which Egan is graceful – letting history fall into place where it belongs.
Egan captures the longing and isolation of Eddie Kerrigan, in his stateroom 47 days at sea, suddenly gripped by the notion that he has forgotten the face of his beloved –
” – could hardly picture her anymore. Faraway things became theoretical, then imaginary, then hard to imagine. They ceased to exist.”
Then, almost immediately, a torrent of thoughts pour through him about the first time they met, about her children and their times together. Finally he concludes,
“It was all still there, everything he’d left behind. Its vanishing had been only a trick.”
The story here, of a child and father separated by fateful decisions who alternate between avoiding and seeking one another out, is woven expertly and filled with surprises that emerge, unfolding until events feel inevitable. That’s good storytelling. The characters have a weight and realness to them because they endure and grow. There are deaths and children and gangsters and action.
But the story takes place in a different America, a different New York and it’s glaring on occasion. Characters deliberate over ethically conservative matters with earnestness but it never escalates. How women are perceived, how abortions and unwanted children are handled; these matters are described but never raise up into full blown issues. Racial hierarchies are described with the vernacular of the day: “micks,” “wops” and “Negroes” but racism never emerges enough to be addressed as an issue. It’s just how things were is the feeling one gets.
Manhattan Beach faithfully portrays some Brooklynites, in particular Irish-American, Italian-American and Naval families during World War II and an era of transition from a more sexist, racist and somewhat naive past just up to the doorstep of a future we live in today.
I review without spoilers, so I’ll conclude by saying Manhattan Beach is a great book. New Yorkers will love it and Egan will be helped during awards season by that. But more, I enjoyed Jennifer Egan’s language – lovely turns of phrase – and her character’s introspections. She has managed to create a compelling tale from immense research.
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