Egan, Jennifer. Manhattan Beach. Scribner, New York, 2017. F;10/17.
I loved this story. I said of Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad that the author is “telling us something we have never heard in quite the same way before and maybe we really need to hear”, and here she’s doing it again but in a more traditionally narrative way. Some good fiction authors charm us with their words, others help us to appreciate the presence of big moral fish obscurely swimming around, but the best do both. Jennifer Egan comes pretty close in this wonderful historic thriller full of real characters set against convincingly-rendered abstract realities like determination, wealth, sex, friendship, family, and alienation. But the interesting big fish swimming around appeared to me to be tyranny of the simple luck of the draw, and also honestly convincing evil.
Anne Kerrigan is smart and determined in the way we presume today all girls should and most will be, but she’s unusually precocious in pre-war and wartime America. Her father, Eddie, connects with Dexter Styles, a brilliant rich nightclub operator comfortable on both sides of the law, and gets a job spying for Styles, partly to fund an expensive wheelchair for his gorgeous disabled other daughter, Lydia. As a child, Anne tags along with dad to Dexter’s waterfront mansion on Manhattan Beach, and is inspired both by Dexter’s charisma and the beauty of the ocean. Years later, cerebral-palsied Lydia is taken to Manhattan Beach in Dexter’s Cadillac and near-magically awakens and becomes verbal, recalling Anne’s epiphany many years earlier in the same place.
Dad Eddie disappears. It’s presumed he just took off as men sometimes do, but things are quite a bit more complicated than that. Anne takes a job in a ship factory, and quirkily decides to train as a diver, overcoming huge mid-20th-century sexist barriers. Egan deals beautifully with Anne’s early solitude in the city, and with her simple but powerful inner life. She forms a bond with one of her diving colleagues, a negro and therefore also potentially an outcast like her, but we are told part of his charm is that she likes herself in his company. He’s just a good listener. She’s just recognizing what it feels like to be an adult.
Dexter is a protégé of Mr. Q, a very elderly and hideously comprehensive gangster. Q although worth unnamed millions lives in a falling-down house surrounded by vegetable gardens and animals, which he raises and preserves for his own use. Egan presents the frail (his breathing is like “tidal labours”) organized criminal murderer in paradoxes: his charming archaic food acquisition habits, and the sense as he converses that one can feel a “snake luxuriantly rearranging its coils.” His habit, properly understood by Dexter only late in the game, of speaking in a “code of repetition and opposites”, telling Dexter he is to be his “own man… (your) own man”, but meaning exactly the opposite. A word from the old man changes (often by ending) lives, and drives huge events as the plot brings the young adult Anne back in touch with Dexter, partly in search of her absent dad.
Dexter’s father is horrified because he understands what the young man has done in doing business with Mr. Q. He slaps his son across the face “with such force that tears sprayed from Dexter’s eyes like juice from an apple smashed between the jaws of a horse.”
Jennifer Egan can really write. I’m never sure when I run into an awkward trope early in a story (a shipyard machine shop houses “a gristle of pistons and turbines and pulleys”… gristle?) and then get dazzled by dozens of much better ones whether the author is hitting her stride, or I’m hitting mine. Either way, or both, I was delighted and envious through most of this novel.
The story is part crime thriller: gangsters, duplicity, murder, plot reversals, etc. And I’ve said that at times I read thrillers just for straightforward plot excitement. Good thriller writers certainly take me out of myself like good movies and TV drama. But that’s a lot less than half of what Jennifer Egan does. At the same time as I want to find out what’s going to happen, the characters are leading me to understand what the author is up to in presenting the “abstract realities” I mentioned earlier. It’s just credible humans experiencing credible life events. But at the same time as I’m taken out of myself, I’m taken back in again to where I live.
Bravo Jennifer Egan. This one gets pretty close to my highest recommendation. 9.3/9.4.