October 2017

Arts & Letters

Small moments

By Kevin Rabalais
Jennifer Egan’s dynamic new novel, ‘Manhattan Beach’, will reward all readers

From the first few sentences of Jennifer Egan’s new novel, Manhattan Beach (Corsair; $32.99), the reader sinks into the comfort of entering a world complete, one under the unwavering control of its maker. At the same time, a prick of excitement flows under the skin: this is something great that will get greater as the pages turn. What begins as a father–daughter story during the Great Depression’s freefall into despair – with banter reminiscent of the best ’30s and ’40s screwball comedies – transforms into a coming-of-age tale, a war novel, a family saga and a crime story, in which those most harmed are those most loved.

Winning the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her previous novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, has elevated Egan to I-may-have-heard-that-name status, but her chameleonic tendency to reinvent remains her greatest virtue, even as (and perhaps because) it challenges her fan base. In The Keep, she updates the gothic novel. Look at Me ventures into the surreal, while her 1995 debut, The Invisible Circus, pushes the boundaries of the political novel. This body of work pulses with playfulness. You never know what to expect from a new Egan novel, but she rewards those who follow her.

If Egan surprised us with each new perspective in A Visit from the Goon Squad, the narrative version of a hall of mirrors, then the leap she makes with Manhattan Beach seems as daring as Kazuo Ishiguro’s hopscotch from The Remains of the Day to The Unconsoled, or David Malouf’s journey from Johnno to An Imaginary Life. It takes a brave writer to cross to opposite poles from one book to the next. Egan achieves these transitions without hijinks. She’s like a great actress who defies recognition with each new role.

Manhattan Beach begins in 1934 in Depression-era America. Eddie Kerrigan drives with his 11-year-old daughter, Anna, to Brooklyn’s Manhattan Beach. Anna has never known her father to be as nervous as he is on this day. Years pass before she understands the reason.

Through Egan’s crystalline observations, we learn about Eddie’s struggles to support his wife and two daughters, the curious Anna and her gravely disabled younger sister, Lydia. Anna has witnessed changes in her father, and country, even in her own short lifetime. Without truly understanding, she observes Eddie as he resorts to ferrying money to corrupt union officials. Egan writes, “The ideal bagman was unaffiliated with either side, neutral in dress and deportment, and able to rid these exchanges of the underhanded feeling they naturally had. Eddie Kerrigan was that man.”

Every detail in Manhattan Beach, however small, propels its tense and engrossing narrative. In those opening pages on the beach, Eddie meets Dexter Styles, a man who offers simple kindness to Anna, commenting on her strength. This is how Anna remembers Styles until, seven years later, she discovers his identity as a shady nightclub owner with ties to the underworld. By now the United States has entered World War Two, and it has been five years since her beloved father walked out the door never to return. “For months his absence had remained volatile and alive, as if he were in the next room or down the block,” Egan writes. “She would sit on the fire escape, grinding her gaze over the street below, thinking she saw him – believing that thinking so would force him to reappear. How could he stay away when she was waiting so hard?”

Anna finds work at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, where women now hold jobs that previously belonged only to men. Rather than work those jobs with “the marrieds”, who long for the next letter from their soldier husbands, Anna wants to prove Styles correct. She longs to work alongside the remaining men at the naval yard and become a diver. With a steady diet of Ellery Queen detective books – “Finishing one always left her disappointed, as if something about it had been wrong, an expectation unfulfilled” – and a chance encounter with Styles, Anna longs to understand the mystery of her father’s disappearance: “In the two weeks since she’d encountered the nightclub owner, her imagination had begun tiptoeing into dire, thrilling scenarios. Suppose her father hadn’t left home at all. Suppose he’d been obliterated by a hail of gangland bullets, Anna’s name on his dying lips like ‘Rosebud’ in Citizen Kane?”

Egan is a master at evoking small moments, as when Styles offers to take Anna and Lydia for a day at the beach. “At the end of the street, under a gray expanse of sky, she sensed the ocean breathing like someone asleep.” The novel’s wit and attention to detail will remind readers of books by Lorrie Moore and the woefully under-read Laurie Colwin, another writer of strong women characters whose vivaciousness increases as they move deeper into the world of men. For a more recent comparison, readers who enjoyed Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave Is Forgiven should push Manhattan Beach to the top of their piles.

Even Egan’s minor characters hold their own, as when she writes of Anna’s Aunt Brianne, a one-time risqué professional dancer: “By her own account, Brianne’s life had been one long fever of love affairs, narrow escapes, failed marriages, small parts in seven moving pictures, and various scrapes with the law arising from booze, or nudity on stage. None of it had stuck except the Scotch, she liked to say: an indictment of the world’s thin and fickle offerings that not one could compete with the reliable satisfaction of a whiskey soda.” Egan also displays a deft ear for dialogue. Midway through the novel and years after his departure, Eddie recalls a conversation with his favourite daughter:

“Are there real gangsters?” Anna asks.
“The pictures didn’t make them up,” Eddie says.
“Do they look like Jimmy Cagney?”
“Jimmy Cagney doesn’t look like Jimmy Cagney. He’s shorter than Mama!”
“Is he your friend?”
“I’ve shaken his hand.”
“Does he look like a gangster?”
“He looks like a picture star.”
“How do you know a gangster?”
“Usually, the room goes a little quiet when he walks in.”

Egan creates a structure of suspense, one that shifts fluidly as people pass in and out of Anna’s evolving life, as she forges her own identity in the male-dominated world of the naval yard. Readers familiar with Egan’s work will know how skilfully she combines intricacy and pleasure, and Manhattan Beach is no exception. It will appeal not only to those who devour multiple books each week but also to those who limit their habit to bad weather and the beach. This is her richest and most rewarding novel yet, a thoughtful page-turner with indelible characters.

Kevin Rabalais

Kevin Rabalais is the author of The Landscape of Desire.

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