Magruder's Curisoity Cabinet a Worthy Coney Island Novel

H.P. Wood
Sourcebooks Landmark, 368 pp.
* * *

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


Josienne Clarke Scores Again on Nothing Can Bring Back the Hour

Nothing Can Bring Back the Hour (2014/download only in USA)
Folkroom Records
* * * *

You've heard me say it before, but I'll repeat it: Josienne Clarke is the next Sandy Denny. She and her guitar sidekick Ben Walker have won all manner of awards in Britain after their stunning 2013 release Fire and Fortune and that's as it should be. It also means that some serious cash was thrown into the follow-up, Nothing Can Bring Back the Hour. That's mostly a good thing, but sometimes the extra production gets in the way of the two things we want to hear most: Ms. Clarke's voice and Mr. Walker's accomplished acoustic guitar. The newest record is filled with cello, viola, fiddle, sax, flute, oboe, piano, trumpet, French horn and double bass, yet somehow the tracks that linger most are the simplest ones.

Clarke stretches her repertoire on this album on material that sounds time-tested, yet only three of the thirteen tracks are traditional, and Clarke penned the rest. Let's just add songwriting to her list of talents, shall we? The album opens with the elegant "Silverline," which has the lilt of a ballad from the Romantic Age and a passel of strings to enhance that feel. Clarke shows off a soprano voice that has clarity few can match. (Judy Collins comes to mind). Then she deftly cuts to the aptly named "A Simple Refrain," that is mostly her voice, Walker's backing falsetto, and his tasteful riffs. Then it's "I Would Not Be a Rose," that will start the Sandy Denny debates anew. It's also a Clarke original, though you'll swear it's drawn from a traditional well. And so it goes for another ten glorious tracks. As noted, Clarke does break out of the folk goddess mold from time to time. She gets a tad jazzy on "I Never Learned French," tosses in a bit of Americana giddy up on "Moving Speeches," and is downright torchy on "Water to Wine." But what she does best is use that supple voice of hers to make us weep, weep, weep. Check out the drop-dead gorgeousness of the melody of "The Tangled Tree." And then there are those three trads—"I Wonder What's Keeping My True Love Tonight," "Queen of Hearts," and "Let No Man Steal Your Thyme." The first of these was covered by Kate Rusby and it's not a patch on what Clarke has done with it—Clarke's that good! Clarke and Walker go Renaissance court music on "Queen of Hearts," complete with recorder interludes. "Let No Man Steal Your Thyme" is an old song also known as "Spring of Thyme" and refers to a warning to maidens to protect their virginity. Among the many who have sung this are Anne Briggs, actress Carey Mulligan, and Jacqui McShee, but few have done so with Clarke's innocence or her ability to convey enormous power and fragility in the same breath.

The only thing that prevents me from declaring Nothing Can Bring Back the Hour a masterpiece is my sense that, like just about every artist who has gone this route, at some point in the future Clarke and Walker are likely to see it as overdone in places. (I'd concur on "Mainland" and "Earth and Ash and Dust.") Put another way, you don't need a beer chaser if someone hands you a perfect single-malt. Do I gush over Josienne Clarke? Guilty as charged. Take a listen and join me on the crying stool.

Rob Weir


Lucy Barton is More Lightweight than Englightening

By Elizabeth Strout
Random House, 208 pp.
* *

In her review for the New York Times Claire Messud asserted that wasn't "a scintilla of sentimentality" in Elizabeth Strout's latest. She's right—it's not a scintilla (speck); it's a boulder. I suppose we can say that its namesake protagonist finds something of herself by the novel's end, but the passive Lucy Barton is no Olive Kitteridge. Lucy Barton has been hyped to the skies, but my reading of it is that it's manipulative and lightweight. If you want me to believe that Lucy is any sort of role model for women, you'd better give that character better nicknames than "Wizzle" and "Button" and a life that doesn't live down to those handles.

At its best it is a book about tough love, the meaning of "home," and the search for self. We first meet Lucy in a New York City hospital bed during the 1980s—gravely ill from an unnamed infection. She yearns for her young daughters, who are kept at bay, and for affection from her cold fish husband who is "too busy" to visit her in the hospital. Instead she gets her mother, whom she hasn't seen for years and who flies to New York from the family home near Amgash, Illinois, to spend five days at Lucy' bedside. Their conversations take up the bulk of the book and, in dribbles punctuated by gossip about people Lucy barely recalls, we get flashbacks about Lucy's childhood before she fled Illinois for college and a writer's life in Manhattan. The conversations are, on the surface, mostly banal, but I got the point. They reminded me of strained chit-chat I used to have with my own parents after I moved away–complete with feigning interest in the lives of people whose names I didn't actually remember at all. So far, so good. But as we unveil the meatier dribbles and they reveal a childhood marred by poverty of the abusive variety, one begins to wonder why Lucy's mother is there in the first place. Is this some twisted attempt at atonement? Delayed parenting? Are we being set up to muse upon the question of whether biology is destiny? If so, good luck determining whether Lucy is an apple from the tree, or a hybrid graft that blossomed elsewhere.

I suspect the book is really about home–is it where you were raised, or where you put down roots? Is it about what makes you feel connected, or what brings you meaning? Is it the antidote for loneliness? Or is it something you find within, not on a map? Once Lucy leaves the hospital, the next four decades elide in the novel in a Whitman's Sampler of things that shape (reshape?) Lucy. I liked Lucy much better toward the end, but I found Strout's elision unconvincing and thin. Several flawed mentors appear—Jeremy in the 1980s and writer Sara Payne at other junctures–but it's ambiguous what Lucy takes from either aside from a few aphorisms. Nor did Strout offer enough to convince me that Lucy was a person who made things happen rather than one who just learned to roll with life's punches. I found Lucy cloyingly passive in the first part of the book, annoyingly so on too many levels later in life, yet inexplicably resilient in other ways. As much as I wanted to feel sympathy for the bad hands she was dealt, too many of the lessons Lucy draws felt like solipsism rather that self-discovery.

 I generally deplore the label "chick-lit," but I haven't felt this much gender manipulation since I reached the midpoint of Eat Pay Love, hurled it across the room, and never opened it again. Okay—maybe there's a mother-daughter thing going on in Lucy Barton that I just don't get, but before you call out the feminist hounds, ask yourself how you'd react to a father-son book written in such a frilly way. I loved Strout's Olive Kitteridge because Olive was everything Lucy Barton isn't: outwardly smart, assertive, self-contained, and principled. She's cranky, but she also has a moral center that didn't revolve around herself. Lucy Barton? Well—at least her story was short enough that I actually finished it.     Rob Weir