oh, good – a love letter to brooklyn. i was beginning to think NO ONE would EVER write a book about this forgotten borough. humph. and what do we have, sitting here in queens eating refried beans?
but still. this is a fantastic book. not for the mystery element; that is pretty much secondary. no, make that tertiary. first and foremost, it is, indeed, a love letter to red hook. red hook is a section of brooklyn with which i am not overly familiar. but after reading this, i feel like i know everything about it. or at least how it was in 2006, when this book takes place, when red hook is on the very cusp of gentrification. lord knows it is probably completely overrun with hipsters and organic gastropubs by now.
a quick aside about gentrification, which you can choose to read, or not View Spoiler » a while back, i went to go see danny hoch’s one man show, taking over, which is about the gentrification of williamsburg. and it was awesome. and this is coming from someone who isn’t really a fan of danny hoch, even though i loved him in bamboozled. EDIT – although i might be mixing him up with michael rappaport, who is also in that movie, and in my head, they look alike because i am racist, but they don’t really. at all.
but so anywhooooo – that show was amazing, and it covered the gentrification issue from many different sides, and when i was idly looking for the name of the show for the purpose of this review, i found this article, with this little quote:
Hoch said while his work is set in the neighborhood where he’s lived since 1990, “Taking Over” reflects what’s going on in many other places, including DUMBO, Fort Greene, Chicago, Oakland and San Francis. His beef is with rapid, rather than gradual gentrification.
“I have one character in the show who took a cue from a developer, who will remain nameless, and gave all the high-end store owners in a 10-block-square area free rent for 10 years.
“The baker came in; the organic muffin man came in; the fusion restaurant came in.” People Hoch calls “resident tourists” followed. “It was a brilliant capitalistic move.
“Even if people were smoking crack on the stoop or getting shot, as long as there was a place selling organic food, they felt comfortable,” Hoch said. “And before long, the people who gentrified the neighborhood were complaining all the grit was gone, like you had to have shootings to live in an authentic place.”
and that’s exactly the problem – that rapid, forced gentrification. it’s like – one minute you have this wonderful neighborhood, like the one in this novel, full of local color and history and eclectic ethnic pockets and then BLAMMO! it all changes in an instant and everything looks the same and caters to the same kind of person and all the beauty is just whitewashed out. and – yes – free rent absolutely is “a brilliant capitalistic move,” but it is like making pâté out of a neighborhood – forcing all this commerce down the throat of a struggling animal and then slaughtering it to end up with a paste that is, while admittedly delicious (sorry!!), is a grayish pap just inviting gout into the neighborhood. and i expect that the flavor so perfectly and lovingly captured in this book is not the same as it is now, in 2014, and that is such a bleeding shame. « Hide Spoiler
okay – rant over! back to the book. in a lot of ways it reminded me of smoke, which takes place near red hook, but not in it, where the action revolves around a single store, and the local residents who drift in and out of it. in Visitation Street, a lot of the action filters through a bodega run by a man named fadi who genuinely loves the neighborhood and wants to create a more focused community spirit by creating a newsletter to address local concerns, celebrate local heroes, and help to solve the mystery of june’s disappearance. while he welcomes the arrival of a cruise line that will bring commerce to the neighborhood, he also values the community as it is, in all its struggling vitality and pockets of unexpected beauty, like a piece of graffiti that creates an illusion of movement to tired passengers on public transportation. he is the clear heart and soul of this novel, and red hook through his eyes just glows.
the secondary concern of the novel (ha! you thought i had forgotten what i started before my rant, but I HAVE NOT!) is its characters. this is a true multi-perspective novel, whose characters are given room to breathe and become fully fleshed out people, with the whole spectrum of human existence on display: love, loss, family, squandered talent, redemption, hope; all of these stories of lives lived packed into this dissection of a neighborhood, but not in a way that feels constricted. it seethes. but beautifully. a beautiful seething.
the mystery. tertiary. almost an afterthought. the disappearance of teenaged june after she and her pal val take a pink rubber raft out onto the water one night. val washes up under the dock, injured and with no memory of the events of the night, but june is nowhere to be found. the mystery will be resolved, never fear, but it is never the driving force. it is the backdrop to the story, as life in the neighborhood continues, as it does, even after a tragedy, and her disappearances is gossip, anecdote, a hole, but life goes on around her absence, and this is the story of those lives.
i accidentally deleted SO MUCH REVIEW, and i had to try to rewrite this thing from memory, so i apologize if it is a mess. i don’t even have the stamina right now to try to fix it. ):
but it is a lovely book. so there.