23.10.2021

Fiction: In ‘Manhattan Beach,’ Jennifer Egan Sets a Crime Story on the Waterfront

It is no coincidence that these subcultures are mostly professional in nature. While we do visit the Kerrigans’ small cluttered apartment and the Styleses’ grand home, Egan’s book is far less interested in domestic relationships than in those of the workplace. By the early 1940s, the stability of American urban domestic life had been under threat for years. Families had been strained by the economic dislocation of the Depression, by the ethnic, religious and class divisions stemming from large-scale immigration and, finally, by the war. Add to these generational forces of entropy the more timeless problems of pride, shame, ambition and wanderlust, and no family unit in Egan’s novel seems particularly secure. “Her life was a war life; the war was her life,” Egan writes of Anna at one point. “There had been another life before that – her family, the neighborhood – but everyone from that time had died, or moved, or grown up.”

Yet what stability the central characters fail to find at home, they discover at work. Eddie, Dexter and Anna all form profound bonds on the job – whether with fellow shipmates, henchmen or divers. While in their personal lives the three struggle with the limitations prescribed by their gender, class and family roles, their intimate professional units provide them with human connections that supersede prejudice and presumption. On the job, the three can ultimately be themselves.

Perhaps it is to be expected that a story of intertwined fates should be laden with secrets. Virtually all of the characters here have them. In the course of the novel, meetings take place that are never to be spoken of again. Money changes hands with provenance suppressed. Misrepresentations of paternity and identity are engineered right alongside the more mundane deceits that spring from infidelity and murder. As Dexter’s white-shoe banker of a father-in-law observes: “Every man has his secrets, his costs of doing business.” We could elaborate by noting that secrecy can also be the cost of having relationships. In this broader context, Egan nimbly explores two of the central paradoxes inherent in the keeping of secrets. First, while a secret is a piece of information that we bury, it can quickly become the prevailing force shaping our identity and governing our actions in the world. Second, while we fashion most secrets to preserve some form of liberty, they inevitably constrain us by inhibiting self-knowledge and self-proclamation.

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Credit Patricia Wall/The New York Times

But for all of their asymmetric influence, secrets are ultimately mortal. What is done cannot be undone through dissemblance. The hidden fact bides its time in obscurity waiting to be revealed by a slip of the tongue or a chance encounter. And in the context of Egan’s novel, it is only when secrets unravel that the business of personal liberty can begin.

“Manhattan Beach” is principally a novel of New York. As such, it inevitably pays tribute to the city’s iconography: its crowded tenements and highbrow retreats and quasi-legitimate nightclubs. But these familiar landmarks are not the focus of Egan’s narrative. Refreshingly, Egan and her characters turn their backs on a Manhattan interior defined by subways and skyscrapers, Broadway and Wall Street, to look outward to sea. After all, from New York’s founding until not long ago, the city was chiefly a port – busy with the daily movement of goods onto and off ships. In addition, because New York was America’s gateway for immigration, by 1940 a significant percentage of the city’s population had crossed the sea to get here. The very title of the novel, “Manhattan Beach,” points to this fact of history that in modern times seems almost oxymoronic. Egan also gestures to this paradox by choosing as her epigraph a quote from Herman Melville, who spent most of his life not on the island of Nantucket but on the island of Manhattan.

In the New York of Egan’s novel, freighters are docked the length of the West Side piers and battleships are being built in the Brooklyn Naval Yards. The local fisheries and oyster beds are still thriving. By extension, the book is teeming with those who earn their living on the water: sailors, stevedores, lobstermen, shipbuilders and that particular maritime specialist prized by the underworld, the boatman who sinks bodies to the bottom of the sea. Anna principally comes of age in the Naval Yards as one of the pioneering divers who performed underwater repairs and salvage. And it is in a remote boathouse at the far reaches of Manhattan Beach that the destinies of Anna, Eddie and Dexter ultimately come to fruition – albeit at three different moments in time.

The prevalence of the ocean in this story is not simply atmospheric; it is central to the symbolism. As the Melville epigraph affirms, “meditation and water are wedded for ever.” For Anna the sight of the sea provides an “electric mix of attraction and dread” while for Eddie it’s “an infinite hypnotic expanse” and for Dexter it’s “never the same on any two days, not if you really looked.” Egan really looks, and so do her characters. Turning their backs on the crowded constraints of their urban lives, all three look to the ocean as a realm that while inherently dangerous also promises the potential for personal discovery and an almost mystical liberty. This is a novel that deserves to join the canon of New York stories.

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