Jennifer Egan’s Strained New World War II Novel

Jennifer Egan. Photo: Courtesy of Jennifer Egan/Pieter M van Hattem

Jennifer Egan’s new novel Manhattan Beach begins with a portentous scene on the bit of Brooklyn that juts to the east of Brighton Beach and gives the book its title. A mob bagman, Eddie Kerrigan, has brought his 12-year-old daughter Anna to visit an underworld higher-up, Dexter Styles, who’s interested in hiring Eddie as an “ombudsman” for his gambling operations. It’s four days before Christmas 1934, and as we’re reminded several times, it’s cold outside. Dexter lives in a big house with a private beach. By the water, Anna takes off her shoes and stockings and dips “her white, bony, long-for-her-age feet in the icy water”: “Each foot delivered an agony of sensation to her heart, one part of which was a flame of ache that felt unexpectedly pleasant.”

That sentence is at once overwritten (“agony of sensation,” “flame of ache”) and underwritten (“unexpectedly pleasant”), which is typical of Egan’s style throughout the novel. (And why would the sensation go to her heart, rather than the spine or the brain? Perhaps it’s because she’s all heart.) There’s a straining here to impart meaning to experiences that are universally familiar and obvious. Egan won the Pulitzer Prize for her 2011 book A Visit From the Goon Squad, a novel structured out of a cycle of stories on the theme that aging is a drag, especially for rock musicians. Manhattan Beach is a turn to historical fiction, which isn’t uncommon for a novelist in mid-career. Egan has a reputation as an authentic chronicler of the present — “the impersonal tyranny of a mass, technicised society,” in Pankaj Mishra’s phrase. But veering into the past, she applies a surfeit of artifice in Manhattan Beach that erases the authenticity effects she intends.

The child putting her feet in the water becomes a key to the novel’s entire plot. The scene bonds Dexter to Eddie and Anna in ways that will be fateful for all three. Dexter thinks, “The toughness he’d sensed coiled in Ed Kerrigan had flowered into magnificence in the dark-eyed daughter. Proof of what he’d always believed: men’s children gave them away. It was why Dexter rarely did business with any man before meeting his family.” Going on this Corleone-ish instinct, Dexter hires Eddie to work for him, which will eventually lead to Eddie’s disappearance when he runs afoul of the Syndicate. A grown Anna will drop out of Brooklyn College to work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, first inspecting boat parts, then becoming the yard’s only female diver repairing warships from below. (She can’t get enough of the sea.) She’ll encounter Dexter at one of his nightclubs, and though he doesn’t recognize her, the same romantic spark he saw that day will lead to an affair between the two of them, Anna sensing that he may know something about her father’s vanishing.

It soon grows difficult to think of Anna, Eddie, and Dexter as characters so much as bundles of good intentions subject to vaguely Dickensian plot twists and vectors springing from Egan’s historical preoccupations. (There are spoilers ahead.) Manhattan Beach is a novel that grabs the reader by the lapels forcefully and says, “It’s 1942, and don’t you forget it!” Trivia about World War II shipwrighting weighs down the paragraphs set in the Navy Yard like the lead boots and 200-pound suit Anna wears for her dives. Here, two male “tenders,” Greer and Katz, are putting her helmet on for the first time:

“The ‘hat’ was the spherical brass helmet, which at close range looked more like plumbing or a piece of machinery than something a human being would wear. Anna felt a thrill of disbelief when Katz and Greer each took half and lifted it over her head. Then she was inside, encased in a humid metallic smell that was almost a taste. They screwed the base of the helmet into the breastplate like a lightbulb fitting a socket. A crushing weight bore down upon Anna through the collar’s sharp edges. She writhed under it, trying to move away or unseat it. There were two raps on top of the helmet, and the round front window popped open, admitting a shock of cool air.”

Note how a simple procedure is ginned up with a “thrill” and a “shock” and a few similes notable only for their banality: something screwed in is like a lightbulb and a smell is like a taste. Egan is constantly trying to write her way out of the tediousness of her subject matter, whether through heightened language or by lathering on the melodrama. So a single night of passion will result in a pregnancy for Anna, and brief exposure to chilly sea breezes will be fatal for Lydia, Anna’s invalid sister. Unable to stand, walk, speak, or feed herself, Lydia is a black hole of sympathy in the Kerrigan household, lending a strain of gravitas to the gee-whiz bits about Anna’s diving and the gangster burlesque between Eddie and Dexter.

Eddie’s lack of a personality is offset by his colorful résumé. After growing up in a Catholic protectorate in the Bronx, he becomes a vaudeville performer, then a stock trader, until the crash of 1929 lands him with the mob. A flashback (drama taking a backseat to historical detail) reveals that Eddie draws on his vaudeville experience to feign unconsciousness then escape Houdini-like from chains when Styles’s button men toss him into New York Harbor. We already know that after going missing he’s joined the Merchant Marines and set sail from San Francisco around the Cape of Good Hope. The petty squabbles among the crew and the procedural doldrums of Egan’s obsequiously researched portrait of life aboard a steam freighter are interrupted by a submarine attack that leaves Eddie and his mates in life boats for three weeks. At this point, I was hoping for some Conradian turn to cannibalism. No such luck: None of the dark parts of Manhattan Beach is too dark.

When it comes to the gangsters, Egan is less reliant on research than on the clichés of cimema. Like Michael Corleone, Dexter wants to make his operation legitimate. As in A Bronx Tale, there’s a scene of the adolescent Dexter being scolded by his father for working for the notorious Mr. Q. Like Vito Corleone, Mr. Q has a vegetable garden in his backyard that he tends as he and Dexter discuss business. Mr. Q is worthy of many metaphors:

“He was hulking and cavernous at once, browned to mahogany. Time had enlarged him in an organic, mineral way, like a tree trunk, or salts accreting in a cave. The frailty of his advanced age showed itself in the silty, tidal labors of his breath.”

Impressive for a man to be a cave, a tree, and an ocean all at once.

The word for what Egan is up to in Manhattan Beach — the heaping on of history, metaphor, and melodrama — is craft, and it’s surely in recognition of her technical efforts that Manhattan Beach has been long-listed for the National Book Award.

Jennifer Egan’s Strained New World War II Novel