Monday, November 13, 2017

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

I want to talk to you this morning about a startlingly good book by the Pulitzer Prize winning author, Jennifer Egan. The Pultizer winning book, A Visit From the Good Squad, was a daringly different, even shocking book, but what is surprising about her newest novel, Manhattan Beach,  is that it is a straight-forward historical novel. As one commentator says, 
After stretching the boundaries of fiction in myriad ways…Egan does perhaps the only thing left that could surprise: she writes a thoroughly traditional novel. Realistically detailed, poetically charged, and utterly satisfying; apparently there’s nothing Egan can’t do. 
The novel begins as Anna who is 11 accompanies her father, Eddie, to the home of a rich man, Mr. Styles. Turns out that Eddie takes his young daughter with him often on his rather mysterious business calls. As we come to learn as the novel progresses, Dexter Styles is a gangster, and Eddie Kerrigan works as a messenger for a powerful longshoreman union boss. Anna is a clever girl who could “feel the logic of mechanical parts in her fingertips; this came so natural that she could only think that other people didn’t really try. They always looked, which was as useless when assembling things as studying a picture by touching it.” 

Anna finds herself torn between the life of her mother, sister Lydia, and her Aunt Brianne and the bigger world life of her father. Lydia has a severely crippling disease which renders her unable to care for herself or even to walk and talk, and her mother devotes most of her life to caring for this strangely beautiful but crippled daughter. When Eddie hears the festive gaiety of his wife, sister-in-law and daughters, and notices how things abruptly change at his entrance, he finds himself wondering if the girls and women were easier and happier without him. 

Soon enough, and for reasons that emerge slowly in the novel, Eddie is suddenly gone from the scene and his family has to fend for themselves. This is all occurring in the 30s, and as World War II increasingly consumes the world, Anna seeks employment in the naval shipyards. Eventually she becomes intrigued by the divers who work on the damaged ships, and given the shortage of men, women are hired in many of the traditionally male jobs in the shipyards. Although faced with the sexist behavior of both officers and enlisted, she preservers in her attempts to be certified as a diver. Armed with a letter of recommendation from her supervisor, she is granted an interview with the officer in charge of the divers, although he assumes from the beginning that the supervisor only recommended her in exchange for sexual favors. He accepts her into the program only because he is convinced she will fail. “Ah, your supervisor. Mr…Voss. He drew out the name as though its syllables were the last bits of meat he was sucking from a bone. Then he grinned. ‘I imagine he’s just as eager to please you as you are to please him.’”

Despite being set up to fail, Anna manages to move in the diving dress that weighs several hundred pounds, and she also passes the underwater test that she is meant to fail. Egan manages to portray the sexist attitudes of the time in very clever and understated ways, and the feminism she illumines is a high point of the novel.

Although Eddie Kerrigan is gone from his family, he remains an important part of the novel. After living as essentially a bagman for gangster Dexter Styles, his disappearance seems to be at the hands of the New York mob, and much of the later parts of the novel are taken up with Anna’s attempts to discover how and why he disappeared. While Anna is the primary narrator of the book’s action, Eddie, who somehow escapes his fate at the hands of gangsters, resurfaces as a sailor in the merchant marines and subsequently survives the torpedo sinking of his ship and a harrowing lifeboat adventure. 

I feel I am already revealing a bit too much of the interwoven stories. Besides telling an utterly fascinating story in this novel, Egan also displays the very substantial research she did in order to produce such a riveting account. Her portrayals of life on the docks, women workers in the naval shipyards and even of mob activity in New Jersey and New York all ring with an authenticity due to her very considerable talents as a researcher. She says in her acknowledgments, “I was heartened, during the years I spent circling Manhattan Beach, to know that if nothing more came of the endeavor than the pleasure of having researched it, I would count myself lucky. And we readers are lucky as well that her research ended with this excellent novel. One commentator is moved to exclaim that she may well be the best living American novelist, and another that the book shows she is dizzyingly inventive. Inventive indeed, and also wise and insightful. She has produced a first-rate historical novel that I think will be remembered as much for it historical account as for its fast-paced mesmerizing plot.

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