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Jennifer Egan's 'Manhattan Beach' Is A Gorgeous Tribute To NYC And Its Seaport

So many great writers have given us so many great quotes in an attempt to capture New York, but I think my favorite is by the legendary New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling: "Before it was anything else," Liebling says, "New York was a seaport, and before anything else, it still is."

Jennifer Egan clearly shares Liebling's view in her latest novel, Manhattan Beach. Egan is known for the edgy tone of her work and for her fragmented storylines that require some self-assembly by readers.

Indeed, in Egan's powerful 2001 novel, Look at Me, the very face of her main character — a model who's been in a terrible car accident — is broken and tenuously held together by titanium screws. But no such self-conscious soldering is called for in Manhattan Beach. This is a big, traditional historical novel — in the manner of a Ken Follett or Herman Wouk.

The sweeping story Egan tells here is intertwined with New York's elemental identity as a seaport, which became more crucial than ever during the Second World War. Manhattan Beach opens on the Brooklyn shoreline during the Great Depression. An 11-year-old girl named Anna Kerrigan accompanies her father, Eddie, on a business call to the seaside mansion of man named Dexter Styles.

Eddie is "a bagman": He delivers and collects payoffs for a racketeer with ties to the longshoremen's union. Years later, when she's a young adult and working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II, Anna will be haunted by memories of that winter afternoon on the beach.

By then, her father has been long gone; common neighborhood wisdom has it that he abandoned the family because he couldn't take the crushing weight of caring for Anna's disabled younger sister. Meanwhile, Anna is supporting her mother and sister by doing monotonous "women's work" at the Navy Yard — precisely measuring parts destined for the battleship Missouri.

But then two events disrupt her dull routine: One lunch hour, Anna watches a man in a heavy canvas suit and bulbous metal helmet descend a ladder off the edge of a barge into the water. That's when she hears the word "diver" for the first time and realizes that she, too, wants to be one and walk under the sea.

Soon after, Anna tags along with a workmate, a self-professed "bad girl," to a Manhattan nightclub. A man she dances with there tries to impress Anna by pointing out the gangster owner of the club, who is none other than Dexter Styles, man of mystery. Styles, it turns out, may know something about Anna's father's abrupt disappearance.

Like every good historical novel I've ever read, the storyline of this one is as hokey as hell and completely transporting. Manhattan Beach is ambitiously and deliciously plot-driven, and it boldly helps itself to a wide library of earlier New York stories: There are echoes here of Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the Damon Runyon tales that would became Guys and Dolls and Joseph Mitchell's briny descriptions from The Bottom of The Harbor.

From its first confined moments in the tenement apartment where Anna grows up, this tale swirls outward to Brooklyn waterfront saloons and chowder bars; Grand Central and Penn Station, where the trains are now jammed with troops on their way to ships in the harbor.

Egan even takes readers to waters off the coast of Africa, where merchant marine vessels come under attack by German U-boats. Meanwhile, the man shortage back home allows Anna to realize her dream to become a diver. She eventually helps repair a battleship, the USS South Dakota, that seems to her "like a skyscraper turned on its side."

In a novel packed with vivid images, those underwater scenes are among the most compelling: The darkness and silence of the harbor floor is a mirror image of the nighttime New York City skyline above, blacked out during wartime.

Manhattan Beach isn't flawless. Especially at the beginning, Egan strains to convince readers of the authenticity of her story and intrusively references too many brand names and period details: Ivory Flakes for washing, automats, the 40-cent boxed chicken lunches that Anna buys at the Navy Yard.

But to focus on scattered imperfections would be like focusing on the litter of New York City streets while ignoring the wonder of the city itself. Manhattan Beach is a big gorgeous tribute to New York City and its seaport. In drawing from the classic catalog of New York stories, Manhattan Beach also takes its place among them.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.