By Jennifer Egan
448 pp. $28
Reviewed by Rayyan Al-Shawaf
Several fine prose stylists have emerged from the contemporary American literary landscape - some sprouting up organically, others cultivated by M.F.A. programs and mentorships. Too often, however, their sparkling writing doesn't tell much of a story.
That's why a novel such as Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan stands out. Egan's descriptions prove at once inspired and playful. A man's face "loosened like a cold roast warming over a flame" with growing happiness. The decrepit captain of a barge "hobbled over painfully, like a squashed insect." And the smoke exhaled by a beautiful young woman "looked creamily delicious, as if she'd found a way to eat the chocolate wind." More important, these delightful formulations are in the service of an enthralling, multidimensional tale.
Manhattan Beach jumps back and forth in the lives of three New Yorkers - Anna Kerrigan, her father, Eddie, and mobster Dexter Styles - as they muddle through the Great Depression-hit 1930s and the World War-embroiled '40s. Much like A Visit from the Goon Squad, Egan's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the author inhabits the mind of each of her main characters, whose trajectories repeatedly converge and diverge.
With the Depression in full swing, former successful theater manager and independent stockbroker Eddie has been reduced to working as a bagman for a lowly Irish gangster. When he sees an opportunity for employment with Dexter Styles, a high-ranking Italian Mafioso (who has anglicized his last name), he seizes it. Not long thereafter, Eddie vanishes; his daughter Anna comes of age not knowing what happened to him. The reader, however, is taken into Eddie's hair-raising new life as a Merchant Marine during the Second World War, serving on American vessels that must dodge German U-boats.
Meanwhile, Anna ends up at the New York Navy Yard in Brooklyn, where you'll often see "two men . . . helping a third into a heavy canvas suit, like squires fitting a knight for battle." Or, in her case, two men helping a woman don the cumbersome outfit. Headstrong Anna is training to be a navy diver - while simultaneously battling entrenched misogyny. One of Manhattan Beach's most electrifying images involves an underwater Anna marveling at the maritime behemoth moored alongside her: "Gooseflesh plucked at her skin. The ship felt alert, alive. It exuded a hum that traveled through her fingers up her arm: the vibration of thousands of souls teeming within. Like a skyscraper turned on its side."
During this period, a newly conscientious Styles tries to convince his all-powerful boss that they should go straight. Such an about-face naturally sets alarm bells ringing and jeopardizes his position. Before any consequences become readily manifest, though, Anna runs into Styles at a nightclub he manages. The stage is now set for her to uncover what befell her father at his hands.
There's an undeniably arbitrary quality to when and how Egan shifts from one character's story to another's. Yet the pieces fit together neatly, and because the author spotlights several chapters in the lives of her three protagonists, the reader comes to know each intimately. Moreover, Egan explores, with keen insight and tremendous sensitivity, a host of larger issues.
The sweep of this breathtaking novel spans the Great Depression, congenital physical disability, a world at war, working women's struggle for equality, racism, abortion rights, and, of course, the wonder/terror duality of the sea.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Beirut.