Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach
A well-written book—historical novel—nearly exploding with breath-taking imagery and similes that is very unlike Egan’s earlier novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad. Set in 1930s and 40s Brooklyn, Manhattan Beach is a literary work both character- and plot-driven. It has all the makings of a movie, and I would not be surprised if the book has already been optioned and the screenplay in development. In print or on the screen, the characters, shadowy syndicate operators, “tarts,” a couple of “Negroes,” a beautiful and well-cared for “cripple,” divers and “girls” working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard among them, are well-rounded. The dialogue between them is compelling and crisp, authentic to the period.
The opening chapter presents the three protagonists, Eddie Kerrigan, a “mick” and bagman who has business with Dexter Styles, a “wop” and racketeering night club owner, and Eddie’s eleven-year-old daughter, Anna. She is “tough,” Dexter Styles notes as the group stands on Manhattan Beach near the navy yard looking out to sea, Anna with her bare feet plunged in the cold December water.
I was most invested in Anna, keenly aware of her thoughts and feelings, convictions and ambitions as she grows into a young woman, independent-minded, and strong. She cares for her severely disabled sister Lydia, and becomes the family breadwinner after her father disappears. During his absence she becomes a wartime diver in the harbor, the only woman on the team, the one who frees the propellers of a naval ship from the snagging ropes and other debris. The sea is a major theme in the book, oozing through these characters, Lydia included, and nearly bleeding them dry.
The book moves from a rich, slowly-developing character-driven first half into a galloping, not always credible, plot-driven second half. Hence, its Hollywood appeal.