Saturday, January 31, 2009

Not a ghost town

I read Ghost Town - Tales of Manhattan Then and Now by Patrick McGrath in New York City and finished it off in Washington. It is the first fiction in the Bloomsbury series The Writer and the City which includes Peter Carey on Sydney and John Banville on Prague. McGrath gives us three short pieces set in different times in the life of NYC.
The first tale is about a woman who spied for George Washington in 1776 when lower Manhattan was destroyed by the British, the second is set in the 19th century and involves a small scandal that descends on a wealthy merchant of Dutch stock and his family at a time of Irish immigration, and the third story is set in the wake of 9/11 and involves a psychiatrist and his patient and a woman who's lost someone in the tragedy.

I heard McGrath read from the book when he was in Wellington for the Writers' Festival and he charmed the audience with his avuncular story-telling. I bought it to read in NYC and enjoyed the stories of an early Manhattan all the more for having walked with my daughter in Battery Park and around the Tribeca area. The story called Ground Zero was a stronger piece for me because I'd been to Ground Zero. It's a strangely unspooky place - a building site now with workers and machinery moving in and out, and down one side, people making their way to the train station and home.

I reached Broadway and headed south toward the site. Across from City Hall the phone company was digging up the street. A sanitation truck went by, its yellow lights blinking, spraying water to keep down the dust. More barriers, the familiar NYPD trestles, painted blue, stencilled, familiar.... Not far from the Brooklyn Bridge I came level with the ruins. all that had once been familiar was strange to me now, and it was not easy to know what I was looking at. Down a side street -was it Fulton, or John? - I saw a high building torn open, its innards sheared off and spilling out, twisted beyond recognition and starkly illuminated by that unearthly blue light...' Ground Zero, Patrick McGrath

There is some great writing but there is something lacking in the three stories. They first two feel to me like compressed novels with an 'and then and then' quality about them. The third story feels richer more complex but still lacks something essential. Issy and I have just spent the day in Universal Studios driving through Jurassic Park and avoiding special effects in Backdraft so the brain isn't up to analysing what that essential thing is right now. Later perhaps.

Anyway, New York is itself a rich and complex place. Overwhelming at times. Exhilarating. And exhausting. But I barely touched the surface, and I'd love to go back for more. I didn't get to Brooklyn where Paul Auster lives and writes and where novels like The Brooklyn Follies are set. I didn't get to really explore Greenwich Village or SoHo although I glimpsed where Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen got their first breaks. I didn't go to the Metropolitan Art Museum or eat in Little Italy or Chinatown. Or stand outside the Chelsea Hotel.

What Issy and I did was wonderful: Central Park, a Broadway Show, Times Square at night, the MoMA. We ate in diners where breakfast was $1.95 (including coffee). We stood on the top of the Rockefeller Centre and saw the top of the Empire State Building. We went downtown to Ground Zero and the Statue of Liberty. We went window-shopping on 5th Avenue and bought some ear muffs from a street vendor. Most of all we watched New Yorkers walk and talk in the dark and gleaming canyons they call home.


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