May 2013

Sam Ashworth

fiction

The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye

If there is a single rule that governs all published writing, it is that the work must justify its own publication. That is, it must demonstrate sufficient reason for its own existence to give the reader some hope that the time he or she puts into reading it will be rewarded. This is why reading bad or lame fiction so enrages us: it has stolen time that would have been more profitably used reading something better. Small wonder, then, that my first draft of this review came out more frothing with righteous bile than Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln -- only it was terrible.

The structure of a good jeremiad should organize itself pliably and smoothly; the only art in it, really, is in sharpening the indictments to bayonet-points. But this time it wasn't cohering at all -- I just couldn't see why I was writing it. So now I am typing this on my phone while I sit on a patch of grass, waiting to get on a public tennis court, because I have just realized that the only solution was to toss out the whole draft. This I have done because I've finally accepted the truth that I've been trying to soft-shoe around for two days: The Gods of Gotham is not a book that needs to be reviewed, because it didn't need to be written.

The Gods of Gotham is an inoffensive historical murder mystery gaily flocked with murder most foul, lavish period detail, a charmingly incomprehensible local demotic, and cameos by real historical figures and events. This is no crime in a novel, of course; rather, it makes for terrific jacket copy and back-cover blurbs (headlined by Matthew Pearl, author of the very similar The Dante Club) and if one is very lucky an option from HBO. Historical murder mysteries, from Brother Cadfael to Victoria Thompson's Gaslight series, are supposed to be galloping and consistently pleasurable combinations of suspense and time travel, and this is all very well and good. But here, the effect is like nothing so much as the wall-sized Tiepolos that tower over the entry to the European galleries at the Met: riots of florid color and contrapposto and snorting horses and furling drapery that are somehow so lifelessly torpid that you barely glance at them as you make for the Raphaels. Lyndsay Faye's mistake is that she has staged a generic episode of Law and Order: SVU in a setting that demands far more authorial spine and ambition than she is willing to commit.

The novel takes place in 1845, in the lower-Manhattan bowel -- indeed, if one conceives of the island as a limbless torso, it corresponds geographically to the sigmoid colon -- once known as the Five Points, the forgotten junction that Scorsese made such a glorious warzone out of in Gangs of New York. And it is a gangbusters setting. New York in 1845 was a city hunched on the cliff-edge of its own destiny. Population density had skyrocketed, turning the bottom of Manhattan island from a bucolic, agricultural landscape -- as Faye notes, Greenwich Village was once an actual village -- into a warren of tenements and tinderboxes. Ethnic and religious animosities exploded in violence with a regularity a man could have set his pocket watch to, if it hadn't been stolen by one of the prolific pickpockets roaming the horse-manure lined streets. As the novel opens, two events have just taken place that, as Faye writes in an epigraph, "would change the city of New York forever": one, the Irish Famine has begun, and the Catholic hordes of Erin are streaming, emaciated and destitute, into the city; two, the New York Police Department has just been created by controversial legislative fiat. The effect on New York is like that of water on cesium: it detonates.

Our narrator is Timothy Wilde, a bartender without a single intriguing feature. He is good at his job; loves Mercy Underhill, the local reverend's daughter; tries to avoid his politically successful brother; and has four hundred dollars in savings stashed under his mattress. From this last item, we can glean that Timothy is not a big reader. If he were, he would know better than to let his money get within ten city blocks of his mattress, for the Code of Predictable Fiction requires that no sooner do precious objects come nigh the orbit of a mattress, than they are surely lost forever. This, at least, Faye does not drag out, causing Tim's apartment, workplace, money, and part of his face to be immolated in a gigantic, historically-accurate fire. Homeless, jobless, and partially faceless, Tim winds up convalescing at the home of his brother, Valentine, a fireman, influential member of the New York Democratic party, morphine addict, and all-around sybarite who can hardly poke his oft-broken nose into a scene without the reader's wishing the book had been all about him. Valentine drafts Tim into the newly-created NYPD. In a clerical twist that Faye carries off with respectable brio, Tim actually winds up becoming New York City's very first beat cop, and shortly discovers he has a nose for detective work. This is fortunate, because all of a sudden, Catholic children, most of whom were employed as child prostitutes in a brothel owned by a madam who moonlights as a Democratic stalwart, are turning up dead, their organs ruthlessly scooped out.

In restaurants, chefs like to say, "respect the protein" -- in other words, do not treat that salmon, which swam upstream in freezing waters, and someone caught and gutted and cleaned and scaled and transported to your restaurant, like it is just a lump piece of flesh that you can have your will with (that way lies the crime of Portnoy). It is the same with authors, and their setting: by all means, write a hamburger of a novel -- a hamburger is a godly food! -- but do not use a twenty-eight-day aged prime Angus steak to do so (and do not get your reviewer started on "Kobe" sliders).

A mass grave of desecrated Catholic child-prostitute orphans in New York in 1845, at the beginning of the first great wave of immigration, is that slab of perfectly-marbled steak, and in The Gods of Gotham, Lyndsay Faye has run it through a meat grinder until it has come out fat, greasy, and absolutely indistinguishable from any other burger.

Of course, setting alone does not compel an author to drown the novel in its broader moral and historical significance (a novel about New York television writers in the early '50s, say, does not have to be entirely about McCarthyism and the blacklist). But when an author consistently uses certain highly volatile moral issues as plot-fuel, as Faye does with the institutionalized racism and religious persecution that inform the legacy we in America grapple with today, she has a responsibility to treat those issues with at least the same respect that a cook pays to a side of beef.

The plot, at least, is a good mystery, full of clever forensics, grand guignol gore, well-realized side characters (a wolfpack of newsboys, who speak in an argot called Flash, are particularly winning), and heaps of historical detail. Faye has done her research -- but we are not handing out extra credit for research; that is just doing your job. More problematic is the way much of that research is deployed: in laundry lists of tatterdemalion street urchins and run-over dogs and mutely alluring whores (all the women in this book, by the way, are virgins, whores, or widows). Every time Tim steps out of his house, the streets come alive like a British pantomime play. Rats scuttle, pickpockets pick pockets, Irishmen stumble out of pubs, and it is all as inert as a museum diorama. Part of the fault for this lies with the prose itself. Just as Faye never uncovered a single historic detail she didn't need to cram into her scenery, she has never met an adjective that wasn't vital to a description. There are sentences in this book that would send Strunk and White into sackcloth and ashes: "Her dry, flitting eyes shone out pale grey even in the smoke-sullied moonlight, like shards of a gargoyle's wing knocked from a church tower," "He made a queer little gesture with his usually nimble hands," "Her eyes sparked within the blue ring closest to her pupils." (This last made me worry she was being electrocuted.)

At one point, when Tim is about to uncover the mass grave of dead children, we get this: "Matsell set off for the nearest mass of earth-piercing schist boulder and we followed. It was a great shimmering stone thousands of years old." This preposterous aside neatly encapsulates the problem with Faye's description style: thick lashings of inert information. Tim is not a man fond of trivia (Faye wants him to be raw and earthy; mostly what he is is a man prone to saying, "What the hell," I asked myself, "am I going to do now?"), and this is utterly trivial. Faye imagines she has a writer's eye for detail, but she lacks something much more essential: a writer's eye for what's relevant.

And then there is this: "A giant of over six feet with thick black whiskers, who couldn't possibly have yet reached twenty-five years in spite of those facts, stood before a small knot of workingmen wearing fierce faces." In the first draft of this review, I indulged myself and wrote a really sinus-aerating blast about this sentence, but the truth is, it speaks, in its stupefyingly stilted way, for itself.

But as I've said, the plot is dynamic, so you would imagine that Faye would use the geysers of drama it creates to serve up sharp observations about where hatred and mistrust come from, and how easily they can metastasize into violence. Or something with a broader meaning than mere run-of-the-mill suspense. Had Faye given the reader something to work with here, some kind of moral or even historical upshot, this would have been a benign review. It wouldn't have been hard: the creation ex nihilo of the NYPD represented one of history's greatest test of the founding principle of the United States -- an idea still radical in 1845: that the people, not monarchs, are capable of self-governance. And had she gone a little further, and made the poisonous prejudices that move the novel forward even threaten to overtake Tim Wilde, it might have even been a good review. Instead, she commits one of the great authorial sins: she puts her protagonist on a pedestal.

In a city (and nation) that is being rotisseried over the hungry flames of racism, xenophobia, and class warfare, Tim Wilde's total lack of prejudice -- or even suspicion -- is as implausible as the virgin birth. Nor is its implausibility -- he even has a black friend! Whom he will save from some drunk angry Irishmen! Not that he doesn't feel feelings for Irish people, too! -- the biggest problem. The problem is that in making Tim the Mahatma of Manhattan, Faye vitiates any chance that her novel had at depth. Why Tim, alone among Americans, is immune to even the smallest twitch of prejudice (he barely bats an eye when he discovers that his brother is a sometime sodomite), is unexplained. Instead of using him to forge a connection between the modern reader and his ancestors, she writes Tim like he's a modern Unitarian -- intolerably tolerant. The result is that the novel lacks any mechanism for drawing the reader into the world that Faye tries to create in her Tiepolo-sized canvas; if we could only see Tim at least struggle with his own impulse to prejudice -- the struggle that has been the American story of the past 150 years, and which we have conducted with so very little success -- then this might have been a novel worth writing.

Which bring me back to the original question: why write this review? Why not just cut bait after fifty pages of overwritten banality and move on to something else? Because it was published. Because in spite of its ludicrous prose, milquetoast hero, and weak ending, The Gods of Gotham is the very sort of book that the industry craves: unchallenging, controversy-dodging, action-packed, with a love story as innovative as Microsoft Word Art and a hero with a high Q factor. And in this, it represents all of the pressures and temptations that come to bear on the novelist (note I do not say the "modern" novelist -- it has ever been thus and always will be), and for that reason alone, it bears calling out. Because this is what happens when writers give in.

The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye
Berkley Trade
ISBN: 978-0425261255
480 pages