It takes a certain discipline to read literature. There is no standard template, no conspicuous signposts to reassure along the way. The unraveling is sporadic, often leisurely and that tends to frustrate the mere genre fiction reader; yes, even those of us who like our airplane reads robustly seasoned with character development, metaphor and symbolism. When we get a hold of the “real thing” we know it, if only because we are tempted to abandon it to a prominent position on our book shelves prematurely. One hundred pages in and we are growing increasingly restless for something…anything to happen…
This is so often the way it is with literary fiction and those of us who want to like it, but so often don’t. Like with fine dining, we are compelled to savor when we really just want to dig in. Jennifer Egan’s historical novel, Manhattan Beach, provides a rich return for the investment of time and patience. Trust me. This one’s worth it. Here is that rare novel that nourishes our intellect and satiates our nagging appetite for something more. Oh yeah, the entertaining part? It is…if given the chance.
Anna Kerrigan has always been a daddy’s girl. She’s a lot like him: introverted, lithe in body and mind, pleasing to look at but not beautiful, occupying her skin and space contentedly. Precisely because of this and, more importantly, because she whispers to his conscience so affectingly that sometimes he even listens, she accompanies her father on journeys to the waterfront where he works as a bagman for a mid-level hood who is also a childhood friend. (Plus she’s flat out cute and the gangsters like her. It’s less likely that there will be any shenanigans while she is present.)
Eddie Kerrigan should do better– he could parlay his underworld connections into a real longshoreman’s job– if not for Anna and his wife, for his severely disabled daughter Lydia who needs expensive, specialized care. But dirt under the fingernails doesn’t appeal to Eddie (he had been a successful stockbroker) so he pines for something more befitting his pedigree. It doesn’t help that it is 1930s New York and the entire country, if not the world, is in the throes of the stock market crash.
Then one day Eddie takes twelve-year-old Anna on an unusual journey to an opulent home on the beach, ostensibly to play with a business associate’s children and actually, of course, to charm the associate, Dexter Styles, who is really a high powered racketeer. True to form Anna comes through on both fronts, especially excelling with the well-healed, handsome gangster when she shucks off her shoes and wades out into the ocean. It is cold. She is brave. And precocious. Styles is impressed. He has an affinity for intelligent women outside the confines of his bed. He wishes his own daughter was more like Anna.
In the car after the meeting with Styles, Eddie intimates that everything went swimmingly but Anna’s not so sure. She had observed Styles and her father from a distance and there was something about the former’s body language that didn’t set well with her. Sometime later her beloved father abruptly disappears.
Manhattan Beach has been roundly praised and lauded as exquisite, cinematic and viscerally stunning. It has been occasionally criticized, too, as conflated, compartmentalized and overwrought. I found it to be all those things at varying times and degrees with the good far outweighing the paradoxically overburdened.
Perhaps Egan’s follow up to the Pulitzer Prize winning A Visit from the Goon Squad would have benefited from more clearly defined genre-like boundaries. I float that out there as a mere possibility in response to some critics musings. Personally I think not. Anna’s character is simpatico with the novel’s nonconformist spirit and vice versa. And though Eddie Kerrigan and Dexter Styles are interesting, well represented characters, Manhattan Beach is all about Anna.
The novel leaps ahead some six years with America on the verge of entering World War II. Anna is now the dutiful head of household and sole provider for her mother and disadvantaged sister. But Anna is more than just dutiful, she is decent and she deeply loves Lydia.
Anna is also as adventurous as she in industrious. Like so many other intrepid protagonist, almost all of them male, she is drawn to the sea. In a wily, almost impossible for its time feat if not for the looming war, she finagles a job as a deep sea diver and repairer of ship hulls. This is where Egan’s prose, so skillful and elegant, becomes poetry mingled with science.
At last her shoes met the bottom of Wallabout Bay. Anna couldn’t see it: just the wisps of her legs disappearing into dark. She felt a rush of well-being whose source was not instantly clear. Then she realized: the pain of the dress had vanished. The air pressure from within it was just enough to balance the pressure from outside while maintaining negative buoyancy–i.e., holding her down. And the weight that had been so punishing on land now allowed her to stand and walk under thirty feet of water that otherwise would have spat her out like a seed.
Though Anna is strong, shrewd and capable, destiny will have its way with her inevitably. It intrudes upon her in the form of Dexter Styles. They meet again in one of his nightclubs and even though she believes that he is in someway responsible for her father’s disappearance she is drawn to him. They plunge into a sexual tryst that it is dangerous for all the obvious reasons (yes, he is married) and then some.
Longing for something more than what they have been allowed, or what they have allowed themselves, binds Anna, Eddie and Dexter Styles together as does the sea. When Anna surveys it she sees an eternal expanse of gorgeous possibility. Eddie, on the other hand, takes solace in its tranquil, hypnotic effect and Dexter Styles is overwhelmed by its powerful mystery that evokes in him a sense of purpose and duty. This linkage bridges the “compartments” of noir, adventure, romance and history into a cohesive if not seamless narrative that, like the sea, is sometimes serene, sometimes tempestuous and always compelling.
But above all Manhattan Beach anchors itself in the father daughter dynamic. With this bond as catalyst, Jennifer Egan explores loyalty, sensuality, the aptitude of trait and the feasibility of redemption with uncommon pathos ensnared in hope.