Social unrealities in immigrant New York

Kevin Baker is a novelist and a columnist for American Heritage. His New York City trilogy ("Dreamland," "Paradise Alley") will be completed by the forthcoming "Strivers Row."

The best piece of advice I ever got about writing came from Dan Conaway, my editor at HarperCollins, after I presented him with a chapter that I modestly described as “a bit of magical realism.”

“Oh,” said Dan, “we don’t do that here.”

No, we don’t. The form perfected by a generation of Latin writers was a means of underscoring the horrible, scarcely believable events that actually occurred in their societies. Being Americans, we don’t want magical realism -- only magic.

Elizabeth Gaffney’s “Metropolis” is a case in point. Gaffney, a short-story writer, translator and Paris Review editor, has chosen an iconic American plot for her first novel: the story of a penniless immigrant boy adrift in the slums of 19th century New York.


Her hero is a skilled young stoneworker who has fled his native Germany. Through a series of misadventures, he crosses paths with Gaffney’s heroine -- the formidable Beatrice O’Gamhna, a member of the Whyos street gang -- and adopts a succession of jobs and identities, ending up as an Irish stoneworker named Frank Harris. Together and apart, Beatrice and Frank spend most of the novel seeking love and ducking the wrath of a pair of rival gangsters -- Dandy Johnny Dolan, the beautifully tailored leader of the Whyos, and the murderous Luther (“the Undertaker”) Undertoe.

This is ground that has been worked by writers as diverse as Horatio Alger, Franz Kafka and E.L. Doctorow, but it remains fertile soil, at the center of the American preoccupation with immigration and reinvention. Gaffney has done considerable research, and she can turn a nice phrase, whether she is describing “the Hamburg skyline with its five great church towers braced like God’s daggers against the infidel sea,” a tower of the rising Brooklyn Bridge that “bulged from the water like the crown of a young molar” or a jail warden ending visiting hour by “banging his nightstick on the doors and dislodging one woman after the next, like leeches, from their criminal lovers’ lips.” Her descriptions of the manual labor that Frank takes on -- in the city’s sewers, then paving its streets, then in the caissons and atop the stonework of the bridge -- are often enthralling. I have no idea whether they are technically accurate, but it doesn’t much matter; they at least present us with plausible, recognizably human worlds.

Which speaks to the heart of the matter. Everywhere else, “Metropolis” is undermined by Gaffney’s resolute indifference to the social realities of life in post-Civil War New York -- or to the physical realities of life, period. To list only a few of her more bothersome contrivances: Indigent, friendless suspects accused of arson and murder were not released from jail just because no attorney could be found to represent them. The crooked pols who ran Tammany Hall did not pool their ill-gotten gains and keep them in a big hole in the ground. And it was Tammany that controlled the street gangs, not the other way around. Had said gangsters ever attempted to make off with Tammany’s cash -- or to rob New York’s main post office -- they would have been crushed like bugs.

Far worse is Gaffney’s reinvention of the Whyos, one of many loose conglomerations of thugs that roamed lower Manhattan at the time but which she has turned into “the unofficial rulers of the city.” According to Gaffney, the genius behind them is Dolan’s mother, who sees to it that the gang is run as a sort of proto-feminist “quasi-socialist utopia for thieves, hookers and killers.” The Whyos have their own fully equal female division, the “Why Nots,” who turn tricks only if they want to, practice effective birth control and even take over polling stations to cast votes 50 years before women’s suffrage.


Mother Dolan has also devised the Whyos’ secret means of communicating, known as “whyoing.” Gaffney obsesses over this device, describing it variously as “every sort of sound you could imagine, from creaks and sighs and whistles to songs and subvocal tones,” “the inverse of ventriloquism” and “musical variation and various mimicked sounds of the city, from animal noises to slammed doors.” It’s a skill that enables the Whyos to stay in “constant, covert contact with one another all across the city,” to influence “the behavior of their victims” and to report “on the whereabouts and activities of potential victims, potential rivals and of course the cops,” and it leaves them “quite capable of fixing any jury in the world from a distance of up to one hundred yards.”

Such flights of fantasy erode the rest of Gaffney’s narrative. The Undertaker is a promising villain, but what individual would stand a chance against an operation as formidable as the Whyos? What army would? Beatrice and Frank never seem truly threatened -- by him or anyone else. It’s refreshing to read a historical novel that deals with how its female characters prevent or end unwanted pregnancies. But too often, Gaffney’s feminism morphs into a utopian streak of political correctness. Whereas an Irish abortionist’s lack of hygiene proves fatal, a black-and-white team of female doctors has never lost a patient, and a Chinese physician does the trick by painlessly inserting opium-doused needles just beneath the skin. (Don’t try this at home.)

The novel’s several black characters (including one named John-Henry) seem to exist mainly for the worst of reasons -- that is, to calibrate the bigotry of the white characters. This may be an unfair observation: In her passion for whyoing, Gaffney has been content to render almost all her supporting characters as cardboard. But then, throughout “Metropolis” it is difficult to distinguish between authorial high jinks and mere sloppiness. Whole themes peter out into dead ends. A hugely annoying omniscient narrator pops up repeatedly in the early parts of the book, disappears for many chapters, and then makes an appearance or two near the end. We are peppered with anachronistic phrases that destroy the period atmosphere: Characters “have an attitude,” have “any number of balls in the air,” push people’s “buttons,” “debrief” them or “mess with” them. They “abort” plans, “call for backup” when presented with “a security breach,” deliver “detailed situation reports” and serve as “special agent[s]-in-training.”

Strip a people of its social conventions, its language, even its physical circumstances, and what is left? Gaffney’s whyoing, feminist never-never land might as well exist in outer space. Purposely or not, she has repudiated our collective national memory and in so doing has stripped her own story of meaning. The New York of the 19th century actually existed, as fantastic and roisterous a city as it may seem to us now. Its people were as real as we are today, and their struggles and triumphs still inform our lives.


Yes, the fantastic can find a place in historical fiction. In Doctorow’s “The Waterworks,” for instance, a science-fiction plot serves as a brilliant metaphor for the grasping zeitgeist of the same place and time that Gaffney is writing about. Gaffney’s fantasy, by contrast, seems to be set in the past only because that is now the place where any sort of whimsy can be deposited. From Mark Helprin’s overblown Wagnerian fantasy “Winter’s Tale” to Steven Millhauser’s mannered “Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer” right up through Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” (that feel-good story about the Holocaust), history has become the dumping ground of a self-indulgent, overly precious school of American letters. This is not a literature that promises to enlighten us in any way, only to divert us for a little while -- like a hired entertainer at a child’s birthday party -- with a lot of cheap magic. *