March 2006

Michael Antman

fiction

Ghost Town: Tales of Manhattan Then and Now by Patrick McGrath

Patrick McGrath’s grimly evocative collection of novellas set in New York City employs slightly old fashioned narrative strategies to compellingly dramatize and personalize several of the city’s most painful episodes, including September 11. The first of the three tales, “The Year of the Gibbet,” is set during the lowest moments of the new nation’s battle against the British, when General Washington’s forces are besieged and barely hanging on, but is recounted from the vantage point of 1832, when New York is again under siege, this time by a cholera epidemic. The final story, a densely psychological study of a disturbed man’s obsession with a manipulative prostitute and her own haunting by what she believes to be the ghost of another man she betrayed, takes place in the days after the towers were destroyed, and the ash and stench of Ground Zero cloak the characters like spectral emanations from their own blasted psyches. Even the middle story, “Julius,” set in the more prosperous precincts of Manhattan in the latter part of the 19th century and centered on a powerful merchant family, devolves into a tragedy that’s also a comment on how material success can devolve to arrogance and greed and, ultimately, dissolution.

The title character in “Julius” is an ingenuous young man, an aspiring artist, who has managed to shake off, or at least subsume, the vicious beatings dealt out by his powerful businessman father and, in his early twenties, falls in love hard with an Irish painter’s model, whose first appearance before him in the nude shakes him to his core. Anyone acquainted with the upper class’ attitude towards the Irish in the 19th century can guess what Julius’s father thinks of his son’s new interest, and can probably surmise, or at least not be too surprised by, much of what happens next. Oddly enough, though, the story is told not from the point of view of the young man, or his father, or even his protective sisters, but rather by the granddaughter of the Hudson River School painter who was Julius’s teacher and who, much to his later regret, introduced Julius to the Irish girl.

McGrath’s decision to tell these tales at a second or third remove is a bit puzzling, but not inconsistent with the kind of framing tales and other narrative strategies that were commonplace in the times the first two stories were set. But even “Ground Zero,” set in the present, is told at third hand, narrated by the psychiatrist of the man whose obsession with the prostitute is itself of secondary interest to the prostitute’s own chillingly manipulative behavior. True, the psychiatrist’s account, which unfolds in a way that makes it clear that she has a few obsessions of her own, yields some effective ironies, but the second-hand strategy works best in “The Year of the Gibbet,” in which the narrator struggles with his guilt over his childhood betrayal of his mother, a spy for General Washington’s army who, when captured, is sexually humiliated and ultimately hanged by the British. And yet, even in this story, the child’s betrayal -- he is only ten years old -- is inadvertent and minimal; he merely fails to come up with a convincing lie when a British soldier confronts him and his mother after a spying mission.

Still, McGrath’s painstakingly detailed and powerful prose has a cumulative effect; he makes the distant city of history books, when cattle grazed in lower Manhattan, seem very real. So, too, the anguish of his characters, whose difficult existences create a memorable counterpoint to the more-glamorous stories of power brokers and socialites that make up so much of the fiction about New York City.

Ghost Town: Tales of Manhattan Then and Now by Patrick McGrath
Bloomsbury
ISBN 1582343128
243 Pages