Stories arise in New York, where ghosts have walked

September 11, 2005|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

NOVELLAS

GHOST TOWN: TALES OF MANHATTAN THEN AND NOW

By Patrick McGrath. Bloomsbury. 247 pages.

Obsession in all its myriad forms is Patrick Mc-Grath's oeuvre. Asylum, based on his dark novel of sexual obsession, currently shows in movie theatres nationwide, to critical acclaim. Ghost Town, McGrath's latest foray into the psychological terrain of obsession and its consequences, mines yet another haunting vein of the human psyche at its most desperate. Devotees of the Londoner-turned-New Yorker will not be disappointed; newcomers will be entranced.

Bloomsbury's "Writer in the City" series has produced some fine books, such as Edmund White's sweet ode to gay Paris, The Flaneur. Other authors in the series include John Banville on Prague, Peter Carey on Sydney, Armistead Maupin on San Francisco and now McGrath on New York. New York at its darkest.

McGrath's chill voice echoes throughout these three sharp novellas set in different eras, each more harrowing than the last, each set in almost the exact streets in lower Manhattan, further layering his tales.

"The Year of the Gibbet" moves seamlessly between the plague year of 1825 and the Revolutionary War. The narrator, dying of pestilence, looks back on the childhood that forever ruined his life after his adored mother -- a revolutionary smuggling letters to and from George Washington out of the British-blockaded port -- is hanged in front of him.

A raconteur of the first order, McGrath has a superb ear for tone; we hear the frightened lad as well as the dying older man making peace with his past. Echoes of the current state of American politics reverberate throughout the tale. Ghosts are, indeed, everywhere.

But most vivid is New York under siege: the docks lined with prison boats, their unlucky passengers shrieking into the night; the slog of mud and sewage, the stench of death and despair, abject hunger and simmering violence. These scenes of the American Revolution are raw and harsh and true; McGrath transports the reader back to the terrible trauma that birthed the nation with such verisimilitude that one can almost smell the gunpowder in the air.

McGrath is no less deft in his other two pieces. "Julius" has the air of Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie about it: Caste and class in the mercantile robber-baron New York of the 1850s was heady and dangerous ground for anyone to tread. Thus, when Annie Kelly -- an immigrant girl of the despised Irish "class" and an artist's model besides -- becomes the inamorata of Julius van Horn, heir to his father Noah's hard-won fortunes, the match must be forestalled at any costs. The cost becomes Julius' sanity.

The twists and turns in this story of familial conflict, complicity and avarice whirl the reader from victim to victimizer to victim again with the perfect symmetry of a Strauss waltz played against a shockingly violent backdrop.

Writers have recently begun to plumb the horror of 9 / 11, with some wariness. In his third tale, "Ground Zero," McGrath juxtaposes the alienation of modern society with the sudden and not-altogether-real closeness wrought by 9 / 11. An older female psychoanalyst who is far too invested in her client, Daniel Silver -- a civil rights attorney aiding victims and their families -- tests the boundaries set and broken after the towers fell. She by turns augurs and disrupts Daniel's affair with Kim, a prostitute whose lover was killed in the towers even as she watched others leap and fall to their deaths from her nearby apartment.

Disturbing, at times shocking, these stories lay New York bare, peeling away the layers of noisy bravado to reveal a city reeling from incipient, institutionalized mayhem; a city of ghosts, a place where the past is never very far from the present and where catastrophe and its concomitant pain limn the daily landscape.

McGrath's deft prose, his keen ear for the lamentations of the soul, his almost uncanny knack for approximating eras other than his own all coalesce in this fine, dark paean to a city like no other -- New York, New York.

Victoria A. Brownworth's latest collection is Day of the Dead and Other Stories.

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