Things have changed a bit since the original 1971 publication of L.J. Davis’s A Meaningful Life, reprinted this month by The New York Review of Books. Boerum Hill pioneers like the novel’s protagonist (and its author) have passed into legend, especially in the fiction of neighbor Jonathan Lethem, who wrote the reissue’s affecting introduction. Succeeding waves of writer-gentrifiers have set their scenes in Brooklyn in all sorts of novels, good, bad, and middling. And they just keep coming. Four new ones, all out within a month of the reissue, sample the full range of what Davis and his ilk have wrought in the fields of both literature and landmark preservation. Here’s how they stack up on the bookshelf.
By Colm Tóibín; Scribner; 272 pages; $25
It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to call your novel Brooklyn. But then again it took a certain amount of chutzpah to write a novel starring Henry James, and Colm Tóibín pulled that off brilliantly with The Master. This book is, on its surface, a much simpler affair: the story of a young woman in fifties Ireland who is (gently) sent off to work in America by her mother and sister, only to receive terrible news from home several months later. In between, at a dance in a Brooklyn parish “more Irish than Ireland,” she takes the first steps toward falling in love with a man reared on spaghetti, not potatoes.
Tóibín’s lack of excessive familiarity with the borough ends up being a good thing for this book: It prevents the sepia (trips to Ebbets Field and Coney Island) from washing over his narrative. And in any event, Brooklyn is—when has this not been the case?—just as much a state of mind here as a physical location, and Tóibín is, as always, in perfect control of his characters’ states of mind. As Zoë Heller blurbs on the back of the book, he “writes about women more convincingly, I think, than any other living, male novelist.” He’s no slouch when it comes to priests and a blond-haired Italian from Bensonhurst, either.
A Fortunate Age
By Joanna Smith-Rakoff; Scribner; 416 pages; $26
If you like The Emperor’s Children, the novels of Arthur Phillips, and films of Whit Stillman, then the Amazon widget will most likely recommend book critic Joanna Smith-Rakoff’s talky novel about a group of Oberlin graduates living in New York City, billed as an update of Mary McCarthy’s social satire The Group. The decision to pen an homage rather than come up with an original idea is one that Rakoff’s own characters, a self-consciously literate bunch, might spend hours deconstructing, over wine served in stemless glasses in fetishistically described Bushwick lofts, parlor-floor Brooklyn brownstones, and Upper East Side townhouses (purchased back before they were outrageously expensive). Cocooned by privilege, they are prone to overanalyzing: “She’s just too pale and languorous for me,” one character says, by way of dismissing a love interest.
But this book’s classification as satire feels false, more like a protective measure. Rakoff may be poking fun at her characters’ upper-class gestalt, but she clearly empathizes with the crew, making them self-aware enough to know they are clichés (“Williamsburg always made Sadie feel like a type”) and providing them with humanizing plotlines. Their way of life is silly, she seems to be saying, but they’re still people. Unfortunately, as people, most all of them are little bit too pale and languorous, and ultimately, their trajectories don’t actually warrant such thorough examination. In the end, they could just as easily be summed up by the brand names that appear throughout the book: Dr. Martens, Oberlin, Ozmot’s, Marc Jacobs, Starbucks, Epidural, ABC Carpet & Home. The end.
The Song Is You
By Arthur Phillips; Random House; 272 pages; $25
Having had the audacity to write a first novel about expats and title it Prague, then to follow up with an homage to Nabokov’s Pale Fire and a Victorian melodrama, Arthur Phillips stakes his fourth novel on the fortunes of a nearly divorced Brooklyn man who confronts midlife crisis by pursuing a 21-year-old singer-songwriter on the rise. Unlike his self-lacerating characters—the grief-stricken fanboy adman and the insecure songstress who perform arabesques of pursuit and retreat for much of the novel—Phillips is immune to the anxiety of influence. With a steady hand on the wheel, he speeds past Lethem country into his own densely thicketed territory. Any flaws—and there aren’t many in this intricate and suspenseful novel—are his own. The mellifluous style and the teasing plots border on the showy but rarely tip over, and when painful memories and conjunctions poke through the corkscrewing prose, the moments are genuine and hard-won. Phillips, with a relatively consistent style across vastly different novels, is neither a grandstanding genre-hopper nor a writer with a pet topic, and this may have slightly limited his fame. But he’s become the kind of writer you should snap up off a shelf no matter what his latest quarry happens to be.
By Jim Knipfel; Simon & Schuster; 384 pages; $14
In Jim Knipfel’s novel, New York in the not-too-distant future is an Orwellian police state, and Wally Philco, a Park Slope schlemiel with an ultrapatriotic wife, is mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore. Gradually he finds the underground, and heads for his defiant Winston Smith moment (which, just maybe, will also include his Julia). It’s a witty novel, for sure, especially as he lays out the farcical reality of this future city: Among the troupes of bad folks are the Stroller Brigade, a club of vicious moms who ram their baby carriers, equipped with ankle-level knives, into pedestrians. (The author, who walks the streets of Brooklyn blind, clearly has been kneecapped by one too many smug young families out for a stroll.)
Is there any bite left in this satirical idea, though? What we have here is essentially Nineteen Eighty-Four shot through with yuppie jokes and brought up to date with the idea that New York is growing less free as it gets more cozy. Yes, it may be a slippery slope (or Slope) from Mayor Bloomberg’s smoking ban to a subcutaneous tracking chip in your wrist. But it seems to me that we as a city are doing just fine on the libertarian front. We continue to reject plenty of America’s basic everyday operating principles, even as we cautiously accept things like big-box stores and a Times Square you can walk through without being stabbed. I’m sure Knipfel would say I’m one of the dupes he’s writing about, but I’m not at all scared that his ugly future’s coming to pass. New York can’t have tyranny—we’re all way too easily annoyed.