MAGRUDER’S CURIOSITY CABINET (2016)
Sourcebooks Landmark, 368 pp.
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I’m fascinated by novels about Coney Island. I can’t explain why, though I’m hardly alone in my obsession; H. P. Wood’s debut novel is the third in the past three years to tackle Brooklyn’s den of pleasure, thrills, and iniquity. A short list of superb novels about Coney Island includes: Kevin Baker, Dreamland (1999); Sarah Hall, The Electric Michelangelo (2004); Alice Hoffman, The Museum of Extraordinary Things (2014); and Leslie Parry, Church of Marvels (2015). I jumped at the chance provided by NetGalley to preview Wood’s entrée into the Coney Island oeuvre and was glad I did. Objectively speaking, Ms. Wood’s novel isn’t of the quality of any of the aforementioned and, it must be said, Magruder’s, her central setting, is highly derivative of Hoffman’s Museum of Extraordinary Things. But Wood spins a wonderful tale, which she tells with a deft mix of period values and modern sensibilities, as befits the imagined history around which the action takes place.
If I had to hazard a guess as to why Coney Island is so seductive, I’d say it’s because it’s long been a liminal zone between tawdriness and over-civilization. Drifters, grifters, and desperadoes once populated Norton’s Point--now the hoity-toity gated community of Sea Gate--and few from the carriage trade came to Coney until the 1840s. That launched the era of grand hotels, which was soon challenged by amusement parks that catered to a heterosocial set. Wood sets her novel in 1904, the year Dreamland opened to compete with Steeplechase (1897) and Luna (1903) parks. Amusement parks and hot competition threw a spanner into hopes of taming Coney Island, which became a veritable stationary carnival filled with mechanical wonders, breathtaking rides, sideshow acts, con artists, and show-biz types far removed from the legitimate stage. The glitzy parks and their high-powered barkers also spelled trouble for longtime down-market attractions such as Magruder’s, which were their day’s version of Ripley’s museums: a few marvels, some anthropological oddities, and lots of things that seemed to be too weird to be true and weren’t!
The novel pivots around Kitty Hayward, a young English woman who became separated from her mother, after their boat was quarantined. She is naïve, alone, hungry, and homeless, but receives assistance from an unlikely source: Archie, an ageing huckster who feeds her and takes her to Magruder’s after she inadvertently helps him pull a grift. There Kitty enters the world of the “Unusuals,” the name the assorted “freak show” acts assume for themselves. The cast at Magruder’s includes Zeph, a tart-tongued legless black man who zips around in a special cart designed by Doc Timur, the mad genius behind Magruder’s; Enzo, whose face is badly burned on one side; Rosalind, a transvestite man who identifies as a woman and has the hots for Enzo; and P-Ray, a seemingly mute Turkish boy who collects fleas for the Cabinet circus. Soon their little gang will be joined by two unlikely compatriots: Spencer, an arrogant rich boy fascinated by the automaton at Magruder’s, and his date, Nazan, a beautiful upper-class woman of Turkish extraction. All will spend quite a bit of time together when all of Coney Island is quarantined due to a deadly outbreak of “The Cough,” a strain of bubonic/pneumonic plague. That last part is purely imagined, though had Wood set her book in 1918-19, the influenza epidemic induced similar hysteria.
The novel plays out like a cross between Escape from New York, Day of the Locust, and Station Eleven-a mix of panic, impending apocalypse, and the will to survive. Wood keeps our interest throughout her ahistorical plot because she builds such memorable characters that we want them to preserve even when we find the externals implausible. This is especially true of Zeph; were this a play, we’d say he stole the show. It also helps that Wood introduces splashes of Keystone Kops-like humor. There’s even some romance, but probably not the kind you expected.
If you don’t share my love of Coney Island novels and think you can only stomach one, it should be Hoffman’s magisterial Museum of Ordinary Things, or Hall’s gritty The Electric Michelangelo. But I say there’s always a place for another good book on just about anything and Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet is like the rides of Coney Island—a cheap thrill in which you’ll be glad to have indulged. --Rob Weir