Review: Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan
Scribner, 2017. 433 pp. $28
Anna Kerrigan likes to join her father, Eddie, on business trips around their native New York City. Anna’s too young to understand just what Eddie does for a living, and since this is the Depression, plenty of people get by in strange ways. But she’s proud, at his insistence, to provide another pair of eyes and ears, and he loves her emotional strength and quick-wittedness beyond her years. When she’s almost twelve, in 1937, Eddie brings her to meet Dexter Styles, a man who, she gathers, is very important to her family.
Years later, Eddie has disappeared. The war has come, and Anna has taken a job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. She runs into Styles again, and she doesn’t recognize him at first; but she realizes he’s a gangster, and that sets her to wondering whether he knows what happened to Eddie.
I expected to love Manhattan Beach, not least because of the rave reviews in the press, but I find the book a disappointment. Still, there’s much to praise. From her solid, if complex, premise, Egan has spun an ambitious novel about greed, power, lust, money, self-image, and innocence lost — the important stuff. She writes compelling, many-faceted characters, develops them over time, and gives them room to stretch. Nor does she pull punches with her storyline, so her people take plenty of punishment. She has also researched her historical ground with care and love, revealing myriad nooks and crannies of Depression and wartime New York, seamlessly rendered. Some years ago, the New-York Historical Society ran a terrific exhibit on the social mood of wartime New York and the hundreds of businesses and institutions that supplied the war effort. Manhattan Beach is like walking through that exhibit, except it speaks.
Egan gives you the harbor, both topside and below water; nightclubs and gambling dens; Brooklyn walkups and country clubs; ships and churches; anyplace you could want. And she peoples them with working stiffs, sailors, soldiers, young women doing “men’s jobs,” bankers, society folk, and hoods. The parent-child scenes are wonderful; a few took my breath away. And especially with her most important characters, Egan takes care to show their inner lives, as with this reminiscence of Eddie’s:
Lying in the vast dormitory, hearing his breath melt into the collective sigh of so many boys asleep, Eddie was shamed by his own meagerness: narrow hips; a sharp, unremarkable face; hair like dirty straw. Even more than the orphans’ annual excursion to the circus, he thirsted for the moment each month when the protectory barber’s hands would touch his scalp briefly, indifferently, yet capable of soothing him almost to sleep. He was of no more consequence than an empty cigarette packet. At times the brusque mass of everything that was not him seemed likely to crush Eddie into dust the way he crushed the dried-out moths that collected in piles on the protectory windowsills. At times he wanted to be crushed.
So what’s not to like, you ask? The narrative is so complicated that the pieces don’t fit together, and I have trouble believing much of it. Styles’s life as a gangster and Anna’s as a Navy Yard worker make sense apart, but trying to weld them—at least in the way Egan wants, pushing her characters to change–the components fail to mesh, so the effort feels forced. For instance, though I understand why Styles married his wife, Harriet, daughter of an admiral turned banker, I don’t see why she married him (and that’s a key part of the setup). More significantly, the story works very hard to bring Styles on a tour through the Navy Yard, using his daughter, Tabatha, as the catalyst, whereupon she drops out of the novel almost completely, even though she and her father have a special relationship. But the biggest trouble I have is imagining that Anna would go near Styles after realizing who he is, how dangerous he can be, and what he might have done to hurt her. She wants to let loose, yes; but she’s too smart, has such a strong sense of self-preservation, and has worked so hard to get where she is that I can’t see her risking it. Not for him.
I admire Manhattan Beach for its emotional range, breadth of theme, descriptive power, and bold scheme. I think Egan’s an excellent writer. But this novel left me unsatisfied.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.