As the competition for the One Book, One New York contest, the Irish in Brooklyn are represented by Jennifer Egan's Manhattan Beach.
Earlier this month, the New York City Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment announced the slate of books vying to be the winner of the second annual One Book, One New York contest. The idea is to get all New York City readers enjoying the same book at the same time.
Last year’s five books were all amazing in their own way, though I had a bit of a problem with several of them in that New York City was not quite the central setting.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, for example, is one of my favorite books of all time. I am literally teaching it in my high school English classes right now. It is many things -- but it’s not really a New York book.
The book that ultimately won the first One Book, One New York contest was Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in which New York certainly plays an important role -- though not quite central.
Anyway, this year’s five candidates are not only all great reads, but each also has a strong New York setting. There’s the James Baldwin classic If Beale Street Could Talk, about young love in Harlem. There’s When I Was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago, White Tears by Hari Kunzru and Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue.
Last year, Irish American literature was represented by a most thoroughly New York book -- among the most popular and beloved Gotham tales ever -- A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.
And once again this year, the Irish of Brooklyn get the literary credit they deserve. Jennifer Egan’s most recent novel Manhattan Beach may well be the book many New Yorkers are reading when the book contest winner is announced on May 3.
Friends and fans of MANHATTAN BEACH, please share!!! This is the last week of voting for #OneBookNY. Anyone, anywhere, can vote--as often as you like. Help MB become a city-wide read in the very boroughs that inspired it. @ScribnerBooks https://t.co/RnyaetGKAA pic.twitter.com/oyMmdigp9R— Jennifer Egan (@Egangoonsquad) April 23, 2018
"New York City has been my inspiration and my muse for decades, and never more so than while I worked on Manhattan Beach," Egan said recently.
"I'm lucky to live in this splendid, inexhaustible city, and honored to be a contender for its One Book, One New York program."
There are many reasons to read Egan’s spellbinding tale, set in mid-century New York, as the Great Depression grinds on. Europe is engulfed in a devastating war, and then Pearl Harbor is eventually attacked, dragging the U.S. into the global conflict.
Egan focuses on one Irish Catholic Brooklyn family, especially a father and daughter, and how they all endure the passage of years, and all of the changes and adversity they bring.
Aside from Egan’s excellent story-telling skills, however, I would say one of the top reasons to dive into Manhattan Beach is to remind us of a time when Brooklyn wasn’t so chic and hip and damned expensive.
Obviously, these days, lamenting what has happened to Brooklyn is as much of a cliché as wishing you could afford to live in Brooklyn. But that skips over the vital role Brooklyn played for the Irish and so many other immigrants for centuries -- as a gritty yet also magical place that felt like part of the big city, while at the same time being very much an intimate home of its own.
This was especially true for the Irish. From devout Catholics to deadly criminals, they left an imprint on Brooklyn that Egan’s book brings back to life.
Early on, young Anna Kerrigan liked to take trips with her father “when she wasn’t in school -- to racetracks, Communion breakfasts and church events.”
Yet Manhattan Beach also has its share of two-bit gangsters and former showgirls. Soon enough, Anna’s family is facing a bit of danger.
Meanwhile, when the U.S enters the war, Anna ends up working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Thousands of other trailblazing women did this during the war.
Anna joins a crew of divers at the Navy Yard who are sent deep into the ocean to fix ships or perform other dangerous duties. She is one of the first women to don the heavy diving suit in order to explore the murky ocean depths.
Needless to say, not only does this reflect her complicated life, it also reminds us that the debate over women and work is not exactly a new one.
This is not the only reminder we need these days. Brooklyn has changed for the better in many ways. But we should never forget its humbler days. Even when it was not so chic, when it was more Ralph Kramden than handcrafted pickles, it was a place full of striving and life, a place where generations of immigrants suffered and sweat and became Americans.
It was never simple or easy. Assimilation in America never was. Anna Kerrigan’s life is proof of that.
Egan’s Manhattan Beach is worth reading, if for no other reason because it reminds us of that.