Manhattan Beach Far Better than Jennifer Egan's Prize Winner

Manhattan Beach  (2017)
By Jennifer Egan
Scribner's, 433 pages.

I held off reading Jennifer Egan's new novel Manhattan for a reason that will surprise some. In 2011, Ms. Egan won a Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and the Critics Circle Award for A Visit From the Goon Squad, a book I thought was, at best, mediocre. At the time, I speculated that it won awards because aging critics out of touch with the social media references Egan employed were trying to flex their sagging hipster muscles. I simply did not get the hype around Egan.

Now I get it; Jennifer Egan is a spellbinding storyteller. Egan captures Greater New York in the 1930s and 1940s in ways that make us feel as if we are perusing halftone newspaper photographs through a powerful microscope that brings the images into sharp focus. Egan tells numerous stories by intertwining three main characters: Anna Kerrigan as a child and as a young adult; Anna's conniving father, Eddie; and the shadowy Dexter Styles, who is linked to the mob.

The book opens in 1934, when the Kerrigans were like millions of other families: scrapping by during the Great Depression. Eddie isn't content with mere survival, plus his youngest daughter, Lydia, is a brain-damaged paraplegic. Although Anna assumes maternal care for Lydia—their mother is traditional and ineffectual—Lydia's needs strain the budget. Eddie is a scheme-of-the-month kind of guy who often recruits the unwitting aid of Anna in his plans. Even when these ventures go awry, the excitement of the chase makes him a hero in young Anna's eyes. She recalls one of the best days of her life: a trip to the ocean, Brooklyn's Manhattan Beach, where her dad pays an unexplained visit to Dexter Styles at his well-appointed beach house. For young Anna, it was like a trip to Versailles. Her worst day, though, was the one in which her father disappeared. His name is never again mentioned, though Anna cannot help but wonder why he left.

Move the clock forward to 1942. Anna is 19, World War Two is just underway, the Brooklyn Naval Yard is humming in an around-the-clock effort to rebuild the US fleet destroyed at Pearl Harbor, and Anna has secured a mind-numbing job of measuring metal parts with a micrometer. Rosie the Riveter she isn't! But she is a single woman living on her own with a little bit of pocket money. She's also naïve—until she meets free-spirited Nell, who introduces her to dance halls, movies, stylish clothing, makeup, and nightclubs. At one of the latter, she recognizes Styles, whom she finds dashing. Plus, she eventually concludes he knows something about her father.

Anna has another agenda; she wants to move on from her job and the disdain of the prodnose married women who assume she's sleeping with her supervisor. She has her heart set on becoming the first female diver at the shipyard. No one wants Anna in such a job, least of all Lt. Axel, who is in charge of training divers. In those days, diving was even more hazardous than it sounds. A diver had to don around 200 pounds of sweaty gear, overcome the claustrophobia of having a helmet screwed onto a metal collar, dive into murky waters, and be able to use tools while wearing inflated gloves. Additional worries included the fact that one was tethered to a topside hand-pumped air hose; if it or the suit malfunctioned, death was a near certainty. There was the additional problem of needing to decompress slowly to avoid sickness or a fatal embolism. But Anna perseveres.

Egan flips us back and forth in time, juxtaposing Eddie's misadventures with Anna's coming of age and loss of innocence. Egan offers a nuanced look at the war years. For a brief moment, a window opened and scores of formerly tradition-bound women jumped out. Once set free, however, many women struggled with things other than sexism. We all know that many wartime Rosie the Riveters—the collective symbol for all women working in hitherto male work domains—were pushed back to the workplace margins once the war ended. What we seldom discuss is life off the clock. Egan doesn't make Anna into Everywoman, but she does give us rich food for thought.

The mystery of Eddie's disappearance is woven into all of this, as is an inside look at the Merchant Marines at sea and organized crime on the ground. Styles is the pivot around which Egan's story treads spin. A tale such as Egan's could easily come off as a force fit of three separate stories, but Egan expertly ties the threads and hides the stitches.

There are a few missteps. Some of her secondary characters—John Dunellen, Charlie Voss, Lt. Axel, a black bosun, Mr. Q, Badger, and even Nell—are sketchy rather than fully realized. I can live with the under development of the first six, but it's odd that Nell also eventually goes AWOL in the novel. In addition, Anna's aunt/Eddie's sister, Brianne—said to be a kept mistress—has deus ex machina qualities. Some readers may, in fact, view the eucatastrophic manner through which Egan resolves Anna's dilemmas as contrived.  Still, Egan's tales are gripping, the main characters are unforgettable, the book is meticulously researched, and the prose sparkling.

If, like me, you were underwhelmed by a Visit From the Goon Squad, give Manhattan Beach a try. Egan deserves great credit for not resting on her laurels. She took her time and wrote a novel that is both satisfying and has something to say.

Rob Weir


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