Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach is a journey through time and mores.
In Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan makes a radical departure in style, language, and structure from her previous novel, the post-modern and Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad. This latest work, labeled “historic fiction” and set between 1934 and 1946, tells of a Brooklyn Irish American family – the Kerrigans – and in particular their youngest daughter, Anna.
The book manages to be both a page-turner and Anna’s coming-of-age story, told against the backdrop of the Great Depression, Brooklyn tenements, Manhattan nightlife, and World War II. There’s water, water everywhere as Egan gives us a unique perspective of New York – it’s the city seen as a harbor town, as a port, and as an island surrounded by the sea with a shoreline that mesmerizes, “an electric mix of attraction and dread.”
The cast of characters includes gangsters, showgirls gone to fat, dockworkers, the elite of society and variations of Rosie the Riveter. The novel borrows so much cinematic imagery that at times it feels less like reading a book and more like watching an old movie starring a fedora-topped Jimmy Cagney or featuring Ginger Rogers as the plucky heroine with moxie all over the place.
Anna and her family live in Depression poverty and the spectre of Hoovervilles hover over them as Eddie, the family patriarch, barely ekes out a living as a bagman for a waterfront racketeer. The situation is made more tragic as another daughter, Lydia, is severely handicapped and her medical care unaffordable and non-existent. Desperate, Eddie seeks a job from a high-level, Gatsby-esque mobster, Dexter Styles, whose name is a phony as it sounds. Dexter, who eliminates pesky employees without a twinge of conscience, cuts a handsome figure in bespoke suits and, perversely, is not unlike Eddie – a churchgoer and family man devoted to his daughter.
The novel begins, fittingly, in Manhattan Beach, a wealthy enclave east of Coney Island, the site of Dexter’s mansion and Eddie’s upcoming job “interview.” Anna and Eddie are driving in a (borrowed) car, engaging in loving father-daughter banter but have no idea they are on a journey to the underworld in every sense of the word. With her self-possession, Anna, not yet 12, impresses Dexter, as does Eddie’s easy nature and intelligence. He’s hired. From that day on, the lives and secrets of Anna, Eddie, and Dexter conflict, separate, and converge, driving the narrative of the book.
The fortunes of the Kerrigan family improve once Eddie is in Dexter’s employ, but two years after the fateful day at Manhattan Beach, Eddie just… disappears. Anna at first can’t accept his absence, “The truth had arrived gradually, like nightfall: a recognition, when she caught herself awaiting his return, that she’d waited days, then weeks, then months…” But she never stops searching for him, a quest that ultimately leads her back to Dexter Styles.
The book quickly moves to 1942. Anna is 19, supporting her mother and sister, working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, an inspector of parts destined for battleships. It’s a tedious job, but on her break she watches deep-sea divers go underwater to repair ships in the harbor. She instantly knows this is what she was meant to do. The job also introduces her to a “fast” girlfriend, Nell, who brings her to a glamorous Manhattan nightclub which just happens to be owned by Dexter, now quasi-legit, and the two meet again.
Anna’s determination to be a diver faces resistance by military authorities – “no job for a woman” – but when it becomes evident the war has exhausted the supply of qualified men, she now puts on the two-hundred-pound diving “dress.” Anna goes into the deep, a world like a dream, one that brings her “to a purely tactile realm that seemed to exist outside the rest of life.”
(In the interest of research, the similarly determined Jennifer Egan, did the same thing – she was encased in two hundred pounds of canvas and vulcanized rubber, with a copper helmet weighing down her head. She had also, by her own admission, become a “Maritime Nerd.”)
On Anna’s dives, she repairs ships of unimaginable size, World War II battleships, and trawls the bottom of New York Harbor, a “landscape of lost objects.” In one of the final and most powerful scenes of the book, Anna goes underwater searching for her lost father, looking to find the answer to his vanishing and uncover the secrets in her past.
It’s easy to forget the book is told in the third person since Egan is such a masterful writer, bringing us right into the minds of her characters, forcing us to invest in them emotionally. She’s seamlessly weaves massive themes – the ascendancy of the U.S. after World War II, the changing role of women, capitalism (in the New York aristocracy and the mob), and, most poignantly, the relationship between fathers and daughters – with images of wartime fashions, detective novels, radio serials, and movie stars. No wonder she was in 2011’s Irish America’s Top 100! ♦
Manhattan Beach is published by Scribner (October 2017 / 448 pp. / $28)
Rosemary Rogers co-authored, with Sean Kelly, the best-selling humor/ reference book Saints Preserve Us! Everything You Need to Know About Every Saint You’ll Ever Need (Random House, 1993), currently in its 18th international printing. The duo collaborated on four other books for Random House and calendars for Barnes & Noble. Rogers co-wrote two info/ entertainment books for St. Martin’s Press. She is currently co-writing a book on empires for City Light Publishing.