By virtue of a tour of The Tenement Museum (highly recommended, by the way) on NYC’s lower east side, I came in contact with Kevin Baker’s historical novel (1910) of Coney Island. There were (I found out) three big amusement parks there–Luna Beach, Steeplechase, and Dreamland.)
Baker’s narrative starts off like a bullet and seldom lets up. He prefaces Book One with a list of “Dramatis Personae, like a Playbill, and it helps set the historical tone. We hear first from Trick the Dwarf, whose first words are I know a story. And does he ever. We’re transported from uptown to downtown in an instant, from Coney Island’s sand and water to rat-baiting in a Bowery cellar, and to an incident that will haunt every character in the story from then on.
And there are a lot of characters. As huge a cast, fictional and historical, as you’d ever want to meet. And every single one as fascinating as the city in which Baker sets us down. This world is not a melting pot, but a stew–lots of different ingredients, each with its own distinct texture and flavor–but all in the same pot, swimming in the same gravy. As you might expect in this time of Ellis Island, this is a world of immigrants–first or second generation. Jews, Italians, Germans, Irish, all striving for survival and/or dominance. Often violently.
It’s a mixed bag of pushcarts and automobiles, manure and petrochemicals, oppressive bosses and exploited workers, crooked politicians and ward bosses. It’s a crowded world that smells bad, one where even the virtuous need to watch their backs. But it’s also a world where affection and solidarity rule even in the worst circumstances.
We see a lot of our friend Trick the Dwarf. We see a lot of Tammany Hall boss Big Tim Sullivan. We see a lot of–really–Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung on their first journey to America. And there are many others, each drawn sharply and feelingly. But the central story is that of Esther (Esse) Abramoitz and her lover Josef Kolyika, a.k.a. Kid Twist, coming of age and following a circuitous path to they’re not sure where.
We move uptown, downtown, midtown through many different plot lines, but always, that incident in the beginning drives everything else, turns the book into a revenge drama of the first order, a hunter-hunted tale that keeps you going, going, going till there are no more pages left and you wish there were more.