Hot with fervor over Kevin Baker’s Dreamland (see August 30 comments) I moved on to Paradise Alley. Even though much of Dreamland revolves around Coney Island, Baker’s attention is never far from the Lower East Side. And it is on the lower east side that Paradise Alley is located, though we’re moved back in time thirty or forty years for this one–the 1863 New York riots in response to the Civil War draft.
Paradise Alley is a small street populated by a mix of economic and racial folks. We’re concerned with three households: 1) Dierdre and Tom O’Kane, she an Irish immigrant (nee Dolan) who escaped the famine somehow, he a native of wastrel ways rescued from such by his devout wife.
2) Ruth Dove an Irish immigrant who did not escape the potato famine (“Year of Slaughter” is what Baker entitles the chapters set there). In fact the back story of her meeting her cruel and criminal “husband” (Dangerous Johnny Dolan, Dierdre’s brother) and wandering through the devastated countryside. has the feel of a science fiction post-apocalyptic novel. The brutal Dolan is later replaced at Ruth’s side by her true husband and father of her children, escaped slave Billy Dove. and 3) Maddy Boyle, a not-quite-all there prostitute kept in her house by her “gentleman,” Herbert Willis Robinson, a reporter for Horace Greeley’s Tribune and sometime “paperback writer” of lurid tracts and tales.
O’Kane is in the army, recovering from a Gettysburg wound when the riots begin, leaving his family vulnerable to the marauders. Ruth and her mixed race children are natural targets, also left unprotected when husband Billy is trapped uptown as the violence begins. She is also threatened by the rumored return of her violent lover of yore, come back for revenge from an exile Ruth helped arrange. Maddy is naturally in the crosshairs of the faux-moralists of the neighborhood, but the moreso because she includes black men in her clientele. Thus, the riots become an excuse for the violent expression of hostilities that would otherwise be contained, and which have nothing to do the ostensible issue of the draft. Thus does Baker create a great lesson in how to draw the reader into the personal side of a political issue.
Baker ranges far and wide in both geography and time in the nearly seven-hundred pages of Paradise Alley, and we are treated to almost separate novels on each of these characters. As in Dreamland, we see seemingly disparate stories eventually merge, and it’s a marvelous bit of tale-telling Baker creates as we turn page after page wondering when and how these characters will connect.
Wonderful, too, is the depth of history. I knew a bit about all this before I started. Or thought so. As it turns out, I didn’t know anything much. I didn’t know the depth or intensity of the racism that lay behind the riots. I knew you could buy your way out of the draft for $300. I didn’t know that one of the mottos of the rioters was “Sell a white man for three hundred, a nigger (price of a slave) for a thousand.” I knew nothing about the intense competition among the early fire-fighting companies and how they formed the social, economic, and political core of the Irish community. I knew nothing about the literally underground communities that inhabited the NYC sewers. Probably, they still do. Remember Ellison’s Invisible Man? I knew nothing about Seneca Village, the small black community that was among the real estate entities torn down to make way for Central Park. I knew nothing about the exhibit of plaster dinosaurs that dominated much of the early park. And, as the commercial says, much much more. All of which Baker weaves into the story without the slightest feeling of textbook information dumping.
What keeps me from giving Paradise Alley the ringing endorsement I accorded Dreamland is its bulk. Although much of the backstory is fascinating, much of it interrupts the flow of the immediate problem–those riots. Who will to escape the random ire of the mobs and who won’t and how? It’s only Baker’s extraordinary skill that keeps the present from getting completely swamped by the past. Furthermore, I have a disagreement about the ending. There’s a logic to it that my head wouldn’t argue with, but my heart is with characters other than those to whom Baker directs our last gaze. So, in the end, I put Paradise Alley on a high plane. But if you have to choose, go to Dreamland