March 2008

Shaun Manning

fiction

Ellington Boulevard by Adam Langer

Adam Langer, author of the much-beloved Chicago novel Crossing California, returns with a book about New York's cast of eccentric personalities. Spinning a complex story around the mundane yet emotionally charged event of purchasing an apartment, Ellington Boulevard is a very different sort of book from Langer's earlier efforts: less personal, more full of spectacle, but ultimately one of the most enjoyable stories in recent memory.

Ellington Boulevard tells the story of formerly famous saxophone player Ike Morphy and his dog being forced from his apartment on West 106th Street, known to tourists and gentrifiers as Duke Ellington Boulevard, because the gentlemen’s agreement he had with his landlord fell apart upon that landlord's death. Now, young editor Rebecca Sugarman and her husband, eternal grad student Darrell Schiff, see their cozy future unfolding in Ike's former home. Through a hectic, improbable, and often hilarious series of events, the characters identified in chapter titles as The Tenant, The Buyer, The Buyer's Husband, The Seller, The Broker, The Buyer's Husband's Lover, and others, experience several reversals of fortune, ultimately resolving into one of the most spectacular musicals ever to hit Off-Off-Broadway. Langer draws each of his several characters with such life, giving each most of them at least one chapter told from their perspective -- including Ike's dog and pigeons -- that the reader is able to feel a sort of sympathy with each of them even through some really slimeball behaviors. Though his characters are certainly moved by their misfortunes, the lightness and humor of the writing gives the impression that everything's for the best in the end, and tells us we should just enjoy the ride. Feel the music, whether it's the real-estate basic Broadway number, Ike's soulful solos, or Darrell's choice gangsta rap.

Ellington Boulevard is, more so than Langer's other books, a comedy at its heart, and a very clever one. Lit majors and other pun-obsessed weirdos will enjoy The Buyer's Husband's satirical research paper titles ("Cursed Be Thy Stones: Genital Humiliation Among Peter Quince's All-Too-Rude Mechanicals"), especially those who may have taken on such topics in earnest. Langer's joy in writing is obvious and sometimes reckless, as there are lines that were clearly set down as private jokes that the author then found too good to strike: "Allie enjoyed getting rim jobs; Mark enjoyed giving them." Also fun is The Buyer's role at a respected literary magazine, which is being plundered of meaningful content by its new publisher in order to give it greater newsstand appeal. The Broker, who is really an actor playing the role of a broker (or so he tells himself), vacillates between using his newfound wealth to fulfill his dreams and accepting that wealth as a dream in itself.

That said, there are some interesting character arcs that set this apart from the general idea of a comedy. We expect misdeeds to be punished -- the unfaithful husband comes to ruin, the unscrupulous seller finds his wealth eroding, the manipulative boss finds herself out on the street. Yet there is a surprisingly high success rate among men pursuing younger women, the corporate ladder is shown to be right and necessary, and sacrificing one's dreams is seen as an appropriate and inevitable development. There are some truly sad developments scattered throughout the levity, but because these are played for laughs the reader never feels too bad about them, and, really, each character's actions play into the grander finale, so where's the harm?

Like Adam Langer's previous two novels, Crossing California and Washington Story, Ellington Boulevard is very much rooted in a specific place at a precise moment in time; unlike his earlier books, though, this time we're looking at present-day New York. The effect of this shift is an environment that is more immediately accessible to those who did not come of age in Chicago's distinct neighborhoods, though Ellington Boulevard does lack much of the exacting, authoritative detail that gave Crossing California its particular sense of charm. We hear a bit about Manhattan Valley, Central Park, Inwood and Washington Heights, but these places are defined more by the characters' feelings about them than the sights and sounds and smells of the places themselves; this is particularly apparent in that we never get a strong picture of the disputed apartment at the center of the story. There is a nest of pigeons on the radiator, the message "I've got a goddamn lease!" is painted on the ceiling, and the flat is selling for an inflated $650,000: beyond this, we're left to our own resources.

The structure of the novel as a musical (specifically, a musical written by two of its characters) gives Ellington Boulevard a particular momentum -- Jane and Miles must decide how the story ends before the reader gets to the end of the book. It also allows Langer to have a bit of fun with stage direction and song writing. The novel includes an appendix of several song lyrics from the musical, and some of these tunes can be downloaded from the author's web site, Adamlanger.com. But we don't get the full musical score. Like Darrell ("The Buyer's Husband"), the stagey Miles Dimmelow has an affinity for absurd double entendres, and among the songs we don't get to see their entirety we have "(Will I See You at) My Opening" and "(I've Got) A Perfect Space for You."

Ellington Boulevard's humor and unfaltering wit make this the perfect choice to read after a more gloomy work of literature, as a novel that is guaranteed to cheer and is also remarkably well written. If he doesn't quite convince us that real estate is "where the real dramas are," Langer gives us a spirited musical comedy resolving itself into a portrait of New York that is never idealized yet full of an energy that is ultimately inspiring: your dreams won't come true here; isn't that great?

Ellington Boulevard by Adam Langer
Spiegel & Grau
ISBN 978-0-385-55205-2
340 pages