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.
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