Saturday, August 20, 2011

Hot Summer of Rage: Paradise Alley by Kevin Baker

Today is the birthday of novelist Kevin Baker, author of the "City of Fire" trilogy--Dreamland, Paradise Alley, Strivers Row--which transformed three distinct periods in New York City's history into vivid fiction.  E. L. Doctorow may bring the poetry, but Baker brings the muscle.  So, in honor of Baker's birthday, I thought I'd share an enthusiastic review I wrote of Paradise Alley nearly ten years ago for another website.

*     *     *     *

NEW YORK, July 13, 1863
(Received 2.30 p.m.)
Secretary of War.
        SIR: The riot has assumed serious proportions, and is entirely beyond the control of the police. [Police] Superintendent Kennedy is badly injured. So far the rioters have everything their own way. They are estimated at from 30,000 to 40,000. I am inclined to think from 2,000 to 3,000 are actually engaged. Appearances indicate an organized attempt to take advantage of the absence of military force.

It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.  Thousands had smeared their blood all over the Gettysburg battlefield eleven days earlier.  A generation of men was quickly and surely being eradicated, leaving widows and children to fend for themselves in the cities and the plantations.  Then, to insult their injury, President Lincoln called for a draft—the National Conscription Act—which, among other things, allowed men to pay $300 to have a substitute go to war for them. At the time, $300 was a workingman's wages for an entire year.  And so, the rich could buy their way out of battle, while the rest—mainly Irish immigrants who had fled the Great Potato Famine in hopes of finding a better life in America—were forced to fight for the freedom of slaves who might one day come north and take their jobs. 

It was a hot summer of rage there in the mean streets of New York and other Union cities.  Riots erupted. Angry mobs assaulted blacks walking the streets and eventually burned down a black orphanage, ruling the city with violence until Union troops could be dispatched from the front lines to quash the rioters.  When the smoke cleared and the blood dried, the streets were littered with the dead—anywhere from two dozen to a thousand, depending on which source you reference. 

It was one of the ugliest moments in American history and chances are very good you never heard of it, no matter how well you paid attention in high school history class. 

Now Kevin Baker (Dreamland) has brought the riots to vivid, breathtaking life in his novel Paradise Alley. 

Baker has crafted perhaps the year’s most perfect historical novel—and these past twelve months have certainly seen a good harvest of historical fiction (The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber, Enemy Women by Paulette Jiles, The Navigator of New York by Wayne Johnston,  and The Seal Wife Kathryn Harrison, among others). 

But Paradise Alley is particularly perfect because it instructs, entertains and provokes in such a way that the seams of research never show. 

NEW YORK, July 13, 18639.30 p.m.
(Received 11.45 p.m.)

Secretary of War
        SIR: The situation is not improved since dark. The programme is diversified by small mobs chasing isolated negroes as hounds would chase a fox. I mention this to indicate to you that the spirit of mob is loose, and all parts of the city pervaded. The Tribune office has been attacked by a reconnoitering party, and partially sacked. A strong body of police repulsed the assailants, but another attack in force is threatened. The telegraph is especially sought for destruction. One office has been burned by the rioters, and several others compelled to close. The main office is shut, and the business transferred to Jersey City.  In brief, the city of New York is to-night at the mercy of a mob, whether organized or improvised, I am unable to say. As far as I can learn, the firemen and military companies sympathize too closely with the draft resistance movement to be relied upon for  extinguishment of fires or the restoration of order. It is to be hoped that to-morrow will open upon a brighter prospect than is promised to-night.

Baker centers Paradise Alley around three women: Ruth, who survived the potato famine only to marry first a psychopath, now escaped from prison and seeking revenge, then an ex-slave named Billy Dove, now trapped on the other side of the city by the mob; Ruth's prideful sister-in-law Deirdre who is waiting for her wounded husband to return from Gettysburg; and Maddy, a prostitute living in their neighborhood.  The women eventually unite in a couple of harrowing scenes which show early feminism in its bravest moments.  In time of war, Baker implies, it's the wives, mothers and daughters who must grow as tough as any infantry foot-soldier.  The male characters—Billy Dove, "Dangerous" Johnny Dolan, a Tribune reporter named Herbert Willis Robinson, and Deirdre's husband Tom—are memorable, but they don't get as much page-time as the women who must survive these three days of terror with pluck and determination. 

Paradise Alley has an eyewitness immediacy, as if, like his reporter character Herbert Willis Robinson, Baker is jotting down notes of events as they unfold in front of him.  This recalls to mind that great, short-lived TV series You Are There with Walter Cronkite.  Details of life in the 1860s envelope us, sentence by sentence, until we are fully immersed in a time warp (or, more precisely, time wrap).  This New York is “a city where herds of pigs still run loose in the streets.  Where stagecoach drivers race and whip each other along the avenues, and steam ferries race and collide and explode in the harbor.” 

Baker’s touch is firm, but unobtrusive.  It feels void of any fancy, writerly flourishes…and yet the book often soars and sings with both excruciating reality and exquisite poetry.  For instance, I’ve never given birth—only stood by my wife’s bedside as she gripped my hand during contractions, squeezing my fingers to a bony, bloody pulp—but this is as accurate a scene of childbirth as I’ve ever read:
It would not come out, whatever it was.  It preferred to stay inside and eat out her innards, grinding her backbone to powder.  She pushed and she pushed, but she could not dislodge it, and then she let herself sink down and that seemed to ease the pain.  Her senses going now, sinking back into her as well, so that she felt herself to be blind, and nearly deaf.  She could no longer see the women around her, could barely hear them calling on her to Push, and other such fantastical demands.

And try not to flinch during this Civil War moment:
The rifles along the stone wall flashed as if a match had been struck along the whole length of the line.  Every blue-coated soldier Tom could see ahead of him went down at once, as if they had fallen into a ditch.  He ducked his head involuntarily, and saw the ground beneath his feet moving, as if it were alive, and teeming with insects.  Realizing only later that what he was seeing was a hundred more reb balls and bullets, ripping through the mud and the sparse grass.

Baker often strays from the action of the draft riots with extended flashbacks of the Irish famine and Civil War battle scenes; but that’s okay, for what is history, after all, but memory?  Chapters alternate between characters and each has a particular point of view of the events (though only Robinson the reporter's is in first person).  Together, Baker has assembled them into a rich mosaic of sight, sound, smell and taste, one that amplifies and animates history in a way that textbooks never could. 

Baker paints on a large canvas, but when it comes down to it, this book is really about family and the dogged determination of its several members to reunite against all odds and for various reasons: some to love, some to kill.  Like the ripped-apart nation in the 1860s, the characters in Paradise Alley find ways to reconstruct their lives after the draft riots…but they will never be the same again.  And neither will readers who have taken the journey with them.

No sleep. The sultriness pervades the air
And binds the brain—a dense oppression, such
As tawny tigers feel in matted shades,
Vexing their blood and making apt for ravage.
Beneath the stars the roofy desert spreads
Vacant as Libya. All is hushed near by.
Yet fitfully from far breaks a mixed surf
Of muffled sound, the atheist roar of riot.

—first lines of The House-Top. A Night Piece. July, 1863 by Herman Melville 

No comments:

Post a Comment