Man­hat­tan Beach

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - DAR­RAGH McMANUS

Jen­nifer Egan

Cor­sair, hard­back, 433 pages, €23.99

It’s been a while since Jen­nifer Egan’s last book — the Pulitzer-win­ning A Visit from the Goon Squad in early 2011. Man­hat­tan Beach, though, is worth the wait. It’s out­stand­ing: beau­ti­fully writ­ten, with the propul­sive, driv­ing force of a thriller.

And there’s a valid rea­son for this hia­tus of al­most seven years: the Ir­ish-Amer­i­can’s lat­est is his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, with its at­ten­dant de­mands of ex­ten­sive re­search. Sev­eral pages of ac­knowl­edge­ments demon­strate just how ex­ten­sive, as Egan salutes pri­mary and sec­ondary sources of in­for­ma­tion on 1930s and 1940s New York.

Nor­mally I flinch a lit­tle, know­ing a book has had so much prep work, es­pe­cially one set in the past. His­tor­i­cal nov­el­ists are of­ten too keen to tell you how hard they’ve worked, and re­port every last bit of in­for­ma­tion gleaned.

Egan, though, is far too tal­ented a writer to fall into that trap, or ven­ture any­where near it. She wears her learn­ing lightly, as the say­ing goes: this place and time are in­stantly made real, tan­gi­ble.

We’re given a lot of back­ground in­for­ma­tion, but in a sub­tle, un­ob­tru­sive way: it’s fit­ted into sen­tence and para­graph and over­all story as seam­lessly as if Egan were de­scrib­ing, say, an email be­ing sent in a novel set in present day. She also avoids clumsy, over­long ex­pla­na­tions of tech­ni­cal or old-timey ter­mi­nol­ogy: they’re sim­ply placed in the nar­ra­tive and the reader works out mean­ing from con­text.

And her prose is won­der­ful — pretty much flaw­less, each sen­tence just right — with that Mar­garet At­wood-style trick of be­ing exquisitely fash­ioned and, at the same time, in­cred­i­bly smooth and easy to read. (In­deed, this could be an At­wood novel; with its wartime set­ting, it par­tic­u­larly re­minded me of the Cana­dian’s Booker-win­ning Blind As­sas­sin.)

What I es­pe­cially like about Egan’s writ­ing is that, un­like cer­tain au­thors, she doesn’t use ob­scure or grandiose lan­guage to im­press the reader. The words are sim­ple; the magic is in how she re­assem­bles them, with the thrilling alchemy of a true mas­ter.

The writer her­self de­scribed Goon Squad as “Proust meets The So­pra­nos”, and Man­hat­tan Beach has a sim­i­lar feel of high art blend­ing with pop cul­ture: the lat­ter in this case be­ing noir-style de­tec­tive sto­ries. It’s less his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, re­ally, than homage to the great nov­els and films of the era: toughtalk­ing dames, snap­pily dressed gang­sters, themes of love and be­trayal, melan­choly and vi­o­lence, staged against the big­ger events of the De­pres­sion and World War II, and played out on the larger-than-life Fritz Lang-es­que set­ting of NYC.

There’s a trip­tych of core char­ac­ters: Ed­die Ker­ri­gan, ge­nial “mick” and bag­man for the Mob; Dex­ter Styles, charm­ing and in­tel­li­gent gang-boss (but not quite Capo di tutt’i capi) of said crim­i­nal or­gan­i­sa­tion; and the main char­ac­ter, Ed­die’s smart and strong-minded daugh­ter Anna.

We first meet her as a 12-year-old, ac­com­pa­ny­ing Ed­die to a meet­ing with Styles. Seven years later, dad has dis­ap­peared, pre­sumed dead. Mean­while, Styles has an eye on quit­ting the rack­ets and le­git­imis­ing his in­ter­ests. Anna works in a naval yard, mea­sur­ing parts for ships to be used in the war ef­fort — but she sorely wants to be­come a diver.

Her bat­tles against in­sti­tu­tion­alised chau­vin­ism — while car­ing for hand­i­capped sis­ter Ly­dia and in­ter­mit­tently won­der­ing what hap­pened to her fa­ther — are weaved into Styles’ at­tempts to nav­i­gate a path out of this game that no­body ever leaves (not while still breath­ing, any­way).

Even­tu­ally, their paths cross, hor­ri­fy­ing truths are re­vealed… and the ghost of Ed­die Ker­ri­gan may yet prove to be more metaphor­i­cal than ac­tual.

The novel is psy­cho­log­i­cally and philo­soph­i­cally as­tute, and packed with fas­ci­nat­ing colour and de­tails about life in wartime, life on the sea — life in those grey, som­bre decades that were para­dox­i­cally lit up by the fire­work flashes of global con­fla­gra­tion and dizzingly fast so­cial change. What a time to be alive, and Egan ren­ders it all with the si­mul­ta­ne­ous clar­ity of black-and­white cin­ema and hal­lu­ci­na­tory star­burst of Tech­ni­color.

At one point Anna muses, while read­ing an Ellery Queen de­tec­tive story: “Fin­ish­ing (a mys­tery novel) al­ways left her dis­ap­pointed, as if some­thing about it had been wrong, an ex­pec­ta­tion un­ful­filled.” Man­hat­tan Beach ful­fils all ex­pec­ta­tions — and sur­passes them. Dar­ragh McManus’s nov­els in­clude Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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