Thoughts on Books: The Big Town

 Cover of The Big Town Images courtesy of Amazon.com   

I’ve always had a fascination with the 20th century. It might be that with me being born at the tail end of that century that I find myself looking backwards sometimes rather than looking to the future.

That being said, I’m not the only one with the longing for yesteryear. With television shows like “Downton Abbey,” “Call the Midwife” and “Mad Men,” for example, we look to the past to answer the questions of the present.  Of course the world has changed in so many ways since then but, a trip down memory lane doesn’t hurt.

Although, before I go any further, I should point out that saved for two episodes of “Midwife” I haven’t seen the other shows despite the fact that they are quite good. Having Doctor Who, a head trip in its own right, is enough.

Which, leads me to a book I found in the shelves of the New York Public Library. Called “The Big Town,” it’s a novel set in the summer of 1929, with the main character Harry Hennessey trying one last ditch effort to make it big in a fictional American metropolis simply called “The Big Town.”

 Times Square Image courtesy of the Associated Press

The plot and tone of the novel is reminiscent to iconic 1920’s novel’s like “The Great Gatsby” or “Babbitt,” from which, the writer Monte Schultz takes some inspiration from. As someone who has read “Gatsby” three times in his educational career, you find yourself feeling drawn to this familiar world of flappers, fast cars, skyscrapers and gin.

Harry, a traveling salesman from Illinois, arrives in the city to make more money for his family. However he gets distracted by the mysterious flapper named Pearl. While Hennessey is not immune to comfort of other women in his travels, Pearl is different, she won’t let go. Despite being barely legal herself, Pearl becomes his companion and guide to the city she has called home. And urban Beatrice to his Dante as the book described her.

Due to her influence, we as the reader see the big town in both its light and dark points from gangsters to wealthy businessmen, from the immigrant poor to the nouveau riche.

As the novel progresses, we learn that Charles Follette, the head of the American Prometheus Corporation and the landlord of the storage facility Harry is renting from, is searching for his ‘long-lost niece’ Olive and offers Harry $5,000, if he finds her. However, all is not what it appears and soon Harry discovers that Pearl may or may not be connected to Follette a bit closer than at first glance.

It’s up to Harry to protect Pearl from a pair of goons who are hell bent on winning the $5,000 and try not to succumb to what’s behind Pearl’s skirt.

Meanwhile, Schultz paints a broad canvas showing a 1920’s city more fantastical than Sinclair Lewis of “Babbitt” could ever imagine. I found myself trying to map the city in my head, where Legion Park should be, or what architectural style is the Washington Bridge, or where the sanitarium hospital where Pearl’s mother lives.

The city itself might appear Midwestern but I found it had elements that gave it a Northeastern touch, such as reference to ocean liners and the amusement park Shepard’s Island, a reference to Coney Island in New York.

 Coney Island, 1912 image by Irving Underhill 

The book slowly meanders mostly with Schultz’s descriptions of the big town but also Harry’s thoughts and philosophy on life. His thinking’s, we discover, are clearly out of sync with the metropolis he’s entered into. In more than one instance, Harry bumps into the harsh realities of the darker elements of the city. Elements like gangsters, con-men and the very businessmen who Harry idolizes.

All within the theaters, streetcars, diners, mansions and skyscrapers of this so-called metropolis.

While cities may be seen as the future of the Great Republic, a term not used these days, Harry becomes disillusioned with the city for seeing it for what it is not for what it ought to be. Feeling that the city isn’t for him, Harry begins to feel the loneliness that could only be solved by Pearl’s companionship. Something that Pearl is only too happy to oblige.

Which leads me to this case of nostalgia. Schultz, who wrote the book and two others as part of a homage to his parents growing up in the 20’s, uses the traditional and somewhat overdone trope that the city is a dangerous and corrupt place. A place that those who arrive from small towns and cities are ill-equipped to handle the people who inhabit them. It’s a trope that as a city dweller, I’ve always find offense to. For these tropes are used at the expense of the city. All of those pesky stereotypes and perceptions that still permeate the city to this day. Sometimes you have to mix the good with the bad, if only the bad wasn’t 60/40.

Yet, in the middle of all of this, we follow the everyman Harry as he is thrust into the big beast. We as readers can only guess whether or not he will make it out on the other side. And in there lies the story.

AJS

If you enjoyed this post, please read those in the archive, I invite you to follow me on Instagram @ayindestevens and on Twitter @AyindeJStevens  

Advertisements

September

I was 8 years old when 9/11 occurred, so this post which there is a poem below is dedicated to. The story remains the same for me and for others, even if we say it less and less. I also took pictures of the tribute in light, the annual lighting of twin beacons in Lower Manhattan.Which are interspersed with the stanza. Now I’m an amateur at poetry so feel free to call me out of the structure needs tightening. Otherwise read on.

September

Tribute in Light Memorial as seen from Brooklyn Bridge Park

Tribute in Light Memorial as seen from Brooklyn Bridge Park

I

In New York, September is remembered

Of that Tuesday morning

When the normal became the abnormal

When sirens pierced the air

Only to be silenced with a veil of dust

As the towers fell

Brave men and women rose to the occasion

Tribute in Light

Tribute in Light in Lower Manhattan, Birds and other flying creatures get stuck so the lights are turned off for their safety

II

Everything changed after that September

As days turned to months

Months turned to years

That day still resonates as children grow up

As spouses and siblings get older

A pain lingers

Vanishing Halo (Tribute in Light)

Tribute in Light being shut off so Birds can fly out

III

We remember in our own way

Some with prayer

Others with tears of sorrow or joy

Most congregate

In beaches, or town squares

On lawns, or gardens

On hallowed ground

Tribute in Light Memorial as seen north of the Brooklyn Bridge

Tribute in Light Memorial as seen north of the Brooklyn Bridge

IV

Beams of light shine

Beacons of memory and time

To guide the living

To remember and honor the dead.

Coda

September.

Inspired by multiple people as a way to pay tribute to the dead of 9/11, it was “designed by John Bennett, Gustavo Bonevardi, Richard Nash Gould, Julian Laverdiere and Paul Myoda with lighting consultant Paul Marantz.” According to the Municipal Art Society. The first one was held on March 11, 2002 and ran for a whole month I remember begging my parents to drive over the Brooklyn Bridge so I could see it.

Since 2003, the Tribute in Light has run every year and is now under the control of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. The beams can mean so many different things to different people that to type them seems excessive. Instead I’ll leave it to architecture critic David Dunlap of the New York Times “No one is telling you what to think. You are merely invited to do so.”

Never Forget

AJS