December 10, 2015
(+++) ANGST AND SELF-IMPORTANCE
The Chintz Age: Tales of Love and Loss for a New New York. By Ed Hamilton. Červená Barva Press. $18.
This Way Home. By Wes Moore with Shawn Goodman. Delacorte Press. $17.99.
There is no U.S. city as sophisticated as New York, and none as provincial. New Yorkers hold the first label dear and are deeply shocked at the second, almost unable even to hear it. Yet New York is a city so inward-looking, so focused on itself, that its residents are unaware of the accent with which they speak even though it is gratingly evident to others; it is a place so determined to be the city-of-cities that it looks at its own suburbs with disdain, as if living there is somehow a step below grinding out the meanest of existences in even the most rundown hovel that has those magical two words, “New York,” as an identifier. The Chintz Age is for dyed-in-the-wool New Yorkers only; even New Yorker wannabes (there are some such) will not “get” all the glamor of squatting in flophouses, peering in other people’s windows, witnessing cold-blooded murder, and crawling through abandoned underground tunnels. Ed Hamilton’s collection of seven short stories and a novella takes off from the notion that the golden age, if there ever was one, is long gone; the gilded age has passed; everything is cheaper and somehow more tawdry now. Well, all right – this is scarcely an unusual notion, but it is a good enough basis for storytelling, although scarcely confined to New York City. Indeed, the changing ethos that Hamilton explores and bemoans is one that has recently received more attention in San Francisco and California’s Silicon Valley than on the East Coast: the notion that advancement in certain material ways has undermined the “authentic” character of a city or region, displacing the people who created that “character” with faceless, upward-striving gentrifiers. Aww…poor little artistic types – forced to do more than hang out and pretend to be with-it, sophisticated, living a real and meaningful life…
These are precisely the sorts of people whose lives, limited by the blinders they have themselves created and that they wear willingly, Hamilton explores in The Chintz Age. “In short, Theo wanted out. Problem was, there was nowhere else to go, nowhere affordable anyway; to change apartments meant leaving New York, and that, for Theo as for most New Yorkers, would be to admit defeat.” Readers must accept this mindset, expressed in these words in “Plagiarism” but pervasive throughout The Chintz Age, to make any sense at all of the book’s characters and events. New York is simply the place, to the point that one story, “Rock of the Lower East Side,” is about a man’s obsession over his onetime life in a “squat” with a woman who, when he sees her years after they have split up, is likely using crack cocaine, “had lost some teeth and her skin had lost its luster, become dry, ashen. Same with her hair: in it’s [sic] absurd eighties style it was frizzy and brittle. …No, they would have been happy together.” The woman does not “stand for” the city – Hamilton writes small pieces about small people, not stories of metaphor and extensiveness – but her onetime lover’s wholly unrealistic thoughts and beliefs about her are much the same as those of all Hamilton’s characters, and apparently Hamilton himself, about New York City. Even the stories’ venues emit New York provincialism: only people who know that “the Lower East Side” is a neighborhood with particular resonance for New Yorkers will be at all involved in this story, and only those who know what the first word of the title “Highline/Highlife” means in a New York context will be able to make sense of that sad fairy tale. The best story here, and the only one with a touch of mythic resonance that reaches beyond the constrained worldview of New Yorkers, is “King of the Underground,” in which a mentally compromised resident of a rundown nursing home unexpectedly finds his way into the world outside and thence to a strange beneath-the-streets throwback of a settlement resembling “a medieval village or even a stone-age camp.” Although set in Brooklyn, this story does not have to take place in New York City, and that is its strength. The rest of the book, however, is and must be set in New York, and while that fact will provide nostalgia-prone New Yorkers with some excuses for head-nodding and navel gazing, it will provoke only bewilderment or, worse from a New York perspective, indifference in people whose horizons are broader than those of New Yorkers.
Aimed at teenagers rather than adults, set in Baltimore rather than New York, This Way Home is an even grittier book than The Chintz Age, its concerns expressed without a haze of wishful thinking, its story determinedly told to elicit shock, anger, upset and an eventual feeling of possible – just possible – hope. So carefully structured as to be outright manipulative of the reader, the novel by Wes Moore with Shawn Goodman goes out of its way to tell readers that its events could happen wherever there are mean streets: “Elijah knew it wasn’t as perfect as it seemed; if you scratched the surface, you’d find plenty of bad things. Alcoholic parents. Money problems. Divorce. The same as anywhere else.” That list, early in the book, omits cold-blooded murder and extensive gang activity, but those turn out to be omnipresent, too. This Way Home is primarily Elijah’s story: he is 17 and a high-quality basketball player, determined to use his talent and drive to succeed in the world. With his friends Michael and Dylan, Elijah plays through a local basketball tournament that he hopes will lead to much greater things – but this is not a basketball story, except incidentally. It is a story about friendship and betrayal, about finding oneself (a de rigueur element of books for teens), about trying to do the right thing when each and every possible thing seems wrong. This is a heady if scarcely unusual mixture, handled here by introducing a series of cardboard characters and predictable situations that nevertheless have impact because the book’s events are presented in a hard-hitting, take-no-prisoners fashion that gives them the ring of plausibility. It seems there is a frightening and mysterious gang in the neighborhood called Blood Street Nation, which somehow has gotten wind of Elijah’s abilities and wants his team to wear gang colors in the upcoming tournament. Deciding what to do and how to do it becomes the crux of the book: Elijah finds out how hard it is to do the right thing and what serious consequences ensue if you do it, and in the process learns more than he ever knew about his mother, his absent father, and his friends. Money and equipment, the meaning of “we’ve got your back” in a place where people get shot in the back, the discovery of what levers turn a friend into a traitor and what family really means – these themes and more occur and recur here. The gruff army veteran Banks, for whom Elijah ends up working at a series of increasingly difficult and improbable tasks, is so obvious a father figure that the initially unstated mystery of his background is scarcely a surprise when finally revealed; and Banks’ daughter, Kerri, is so obviously a potential love interest – and bright and focused into the bargain – that she quickly becomes a more interesting character than the rather dull Elijah himself. Moore and Goodman seem to sense this: they pull her out of crucial portions near the book’s climax and never let any romantic relationship develop beyond the hinting-at-it stage. The deaths and violence in This Way Home are carefully placed by the authors so as to teach Elijah and, through him, readers some lessons about life; indeed; the whole novel has a feeling of careful placement of characters and events, things arranged just so on a structural chessboard so that the authors can nudge readers in specific directions at specific times. There are effective scenes in the book, or parts of scenes, but This Way Home is too contrived and carefully managed to be as fully convincing and involving as Moore and Goodman want it to be: it comes across more as preachy than as demonstrative of the need to make hard choices, accept the consequences and find a way to move on in life.