Candace Bushnell, Hanya Yanagihara and More on Their Favorite New York City Novels – The New York Times
These writers, who have themselves set fiction in the city, weigh in on novels by others who have done the same.
Last week, T published a list of the 25 most significant New York City novels from the last 100 years, which we compiled based on a discussion (with some friendly debate) by five panelists: the writers Michael Cunningham, Mark Harris, Katie Kitamura and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, and the bookseller Miriam Chotiner-Gardner. Given that reading preferences are so subjective, however, and that New York City looms large in the actual and literary lives of many, we wanted to bring others into the conversation, too. Here are some of the titles that authors who have themselves written fiction set in New York — Eileen Myles, Candace Bushnell and T’s editor in chief, Hanya Yanagihara, among them — would nominate for a list of their own.
Bret Easton Ellis
“The Bonfire of the Vanities” by Tom Wolfe, 1987: The central New York novel of the 1980s, capturing the zeitgeist of that moment unlike anything else: glamorous, brash, over-the-top. A vibrant, multilevel satire with an all-encompassing scope. One of the great portrayals of the city as seen from an insider — only Edith Wharton tops Wolfe here.
“The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand, 1943: This remains one of the 20th century’s most compelling page-turners, regardless of where you stand on its author — it’s not particularly well written, but it’s a monumental piece of fiction. It’s an ode to individualism, but it’s really a borderline trashy soap opera (Rand was originally writing it for the movies) set amid the towering skyscrapers (symbols of freedom!) in 1930s New York, and there isn’t a single sympathetic character in it. At 19, I found it was a galvanizing novel of ideas about art, business and technology.
“Look At Me” by Jennifer Egan, 2001: Half of this novel takes place in Illinois, but the chapters that unravel in a pre-9/11 Manhattan obsessed with celebrity, internet entrepreneurs and the fashion world are the key fictional record of that moment — seen through the eyes of a famous model whose face is disfigured in a car accident; after plastic surgery, no one recognizes her.
As a kid, I loved gritty coming-of-age stories set in New York, like Paule Marshall’s “Brown Girl, Brownstones” (1959), Henry Roth’s “Call It Sleep” (1934) and Alice Childress’s “A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich” (1973). As an adult, I am often drawn to bittersweet New York stories, novels where a person burns out on the city — where, to borrow Joan Didion’s words, a person learns that “it is distinctly possible to stay too long at the Fair.” Two favorites: Richard Yates’s quiet feminist masterpiece, “The Easter Parade” (1976), a tale of two sisters, one who marries an abuser, the other who clings to her lonely freedom — and Patricia Highsmith’s “The Price of Salt” (1952), about a young Manhattan salesclerk who becomes infatuated with an older married woman … New York City is the perfect backdrop for that turning point when one’s choices suddenly, brutally, matter.
“Bright Lights, Big City” by Jay McInerney, 1984: It’s the ultimate New York fantasy: Come to New York, struggle a bit, write a novel about it and become a famous writer yourself, back when being the next F. Scott Fitzgerald was something people still aspired to. That aside, “Bright Lights, Big City” gives the ultimate lived experience of a particular moment in New York, capturing the ambitions and yearnings that make New Yorkers unique.
Zakiya Dalila Harris
“When No One Is Watching” (2020) by Alyssa Cole poses tough questions that New York transplants like myself should be asking ourselves when we move into communities we didn’t grow up in. But besides commenting on social issues like gentrification, it’s also an exciting mystery that builds into a thrilling, no-holds-barred horror story.
“Rosemary’s Baby” (1967) by Ira Levin has all of my favorite things in a horror read: spooky ambience, weirdly intrusive neighbors, relationship drama and a whole lot of gaslighting. What I love most, though, is what this novel has to say about the lengths an artist might go to in order to make it in New York City. It’s spot on and terrifying.
I read “Severance” (2018) by Ling Ma in the early months of the pandemic, back when simply going outside for a walk was a calculated risk. It felt very on the nose in terms of what was happening in New York City — at times almost too much — but Ling Ma conveys what it means to continue on in the face of apocalyptic loss so beautifully that I found “Severance” profoundly comforting, too.
“Nevada” by Imogen Binnie, 2013: It’s called “Nevada,” but it’s set in New York City. And with this novel, Imogen Binnie did for a certain late aughts Brooklyn-based trans writing scene what Langston Hughes did for writers during the Harlem Renaissance, or what Gertrude Stein did for the writers of 1920s Paris. That is, Binnie made much of the writing that came after her possible. “Nevada” fell out of print for a few years, but this month, a new edition was issued by MCD x FSG.
The two books I most often think of when I walk around Manhattan are F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” (1925) (uptown) and Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853) (downtown). “Gatsby” is set on Long Island, but the characters go into the city frequently and, each time they do, Fitzgerald captures something more about its magic. Bartleby’s subtitle is “A Story of Wall Street.” There are many wonderful books about Gotham, from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1958) by Truman Capote to “The Bonfire of the Vanities” (1987) to the stories of John O’Hara but, to me, Gatsby and Bartleby lie beneath them all. [Ed. note: “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is technically a short story and was published well before 1921, but this write-up was too delightful not to include.]
“Another Country” by James Baldwin, 1962: Early in the novel, Rufus Scott asks Leona, whom he’s just met, “This your first time in New York?” Perhaps it’s not our first time here, but Baldwin’s writing makes the experience of the city immediate and new: “The train came in, filling the great scar of the tracks. They all got on, sitting in the lighted car which was far from empty, which would be choked with people before they got very far uptown, and stood or sat in the isolation cell into which they transformed every inch of space they held.” The New York that Baldwin gives us, wrapped in racial and erotic conflict, is kinetic, nonstop, isolating, gorgeous and, finally, cruel.
“Harriet the Spy” by Louise Fitzhugh, 1964: The city inhabited by 11-year-old Harriet M. Welsch is in many ways quite different from ours. We certainly feel a pang upon casually learning that “there is a very nice picture playing over on 86th Street. … But if you do not like that one … then there are three other movie houses there and you can take your pick.” But what’s really striking is the freedom of the novel’s nonconforming protagonist. It’s not just the freedom of a child — it’s the freedom of this New York child, pre-play date era, and it comes with a recognition of the disparity in the ways people live in the city.
I’m not including some of the titles that the jury chose for their long list and that I would, too — “Invisible Man” (1952), “Another Country” (1962) and “Desperate Characters” (1970) — because I think they make the case better than I could. But here are some other titles that would be on my list, as well:
“There Is Confusion” by Jessie Redmon Fauset, 1924: Fauset was a contemporary of the better known Nella Larsen, and I wish more people read her. This book revolves around three friends’ coming-of-age and, along with the pleasure of the characters themselves — all well drawn and distinctive — there’s the additional pleasure of Fauset’s keen understanding of social nuances, as well as class dynamics.
“The Catcher in the Rye” by J. D. Salinger, 1951: If you’re my age (47) or a little older, this may well have been your first literary exposure to Manhattan — and not just any Manhattan but a specific version of the city: one that’s produced generations of disaffected teenagers ready to set flame to the old society.
“Last Exit to Brooklyn” by Hubert Selby Jr., 1964: A relentless novel comprising six linked stories, all set in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. “Last Exit”’s characters are all — because of what they do or who they are — outcasts from society. Selby isn’t necessarily sympathetic to them, nor does he endow them with much dignity, but his recognition of these lives still feels radical today, and the book has an undeniable momentum. I found it instructive to read it alongside one of its descendants, Gloria Naylor’s “Bailey’s Cafe” (1992).
“Portnoy’s Complaint” by Philip Roth, 1969: Not strictly set in New York, but impossible without it.
“The Lost Language of Cranes” by David Leavitt, 1986: My father bought this book at the Strand while on a business trip and gave it to me after he’d read it. I was entranced by it: It seemed like a glimpse into not just a city but adulthood itself. It’s a novel about so many specificities — being gay in the ’80s, becoming an adult, a gentrifying Manhattan — and is confidently, elegantly executed, with set pieces I still remember.
“American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis, 1991: The ultimate ’80s New York City novel, it seethes with a cokey, nervy energy. Ellis isn’t given enough credit for how experimental and daring this book is — it has a language and velocity all its own. A singular, era-defining work.
“Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer” by Steven Millhauser, 1996: A wondrous and marvelous (in both senses) fantasy about American ambition and commerce that’s both a response to the stubbornly immortal rags-to-riches narrative and a subversion of it. Millhauser’s fans (I’ve been one for years) will find all his signature tropes and motifs (automatons, waxworks, magicians), as well as the dread that informs all his writing, the sense that above our country’s glittering offerings, a darkness hovers, waiting to descend.
“The Farewell Symphony” by Edmund White, 1997: The third in White’s semi-autobiographical series of novels follows its narrator from the 1960s through the ’90s, as AIDS consumes the city — and a generation of gay men. (Its devastating metaphor for those years is Joseph Haydn’s 1772 Symphony No. 45 in F sharp minor, called the “Farewell” Symphony because each musician exits the stage during the final adagio, leaving just two violinists.) The book is deeply moving, but it’s also gossipy and frothy, with a lot of thinly veiled cameos. And no one writes more sexily, or more fearlessly, about sex than Ed White.
“The Russian Debutante’s Handbook” by Gary Shteyngart, 2002: A laugh-out-loud satire about the American immigrant experience; I remember giggling helplessly while reading the banya scene. It’s very hard to be funny on the page, but Shteyngart makes it seem effortless.
“Specimen Days” by Michael Cunningham, 2005: A gorgeous, generous, inventive three-part novel about Walt Whitman, the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire and, in my favorite section, a lizardlike alien who’s nanny to a young human charge. I treasure my memory of this book so much that I’ve never reread it, but my latest novel is in part a tribute to it.
“The Last of Her Kind” by Sigrid Nunez, 2005: This story of two young women — one rich, one not — who meet at Barnard College in the ’60s is not only an unsparing look at a tumultuous, paradigm-changing decade but an uncomfortably wise portrait of female friendship, and how class and money define our relationships.
“The Reluctant Fundamentalist” by Mohsin Hamid, 2007: The first great Sept. 11 novel — Hamid delivers a sophisticated, twisty, shrewd and chilling narrative about national loyalty, citizenship and the promise of America that unfolds like a thriller.
“The Long Secret” by Louise Fitzhugh, 1965: I’ve never understood why it took someone so long to make a TV series based on Fitzhugh’s trio of books about one of the greatest girl characters in modern literature: Harriet the Spy. This is the second installment and concerns Beth Ellen, Harriet’s timid school friend, who’s from an old-money New York family. To this day, it remains the sharpest, funniest satire about the Hamptons (well, Water Mill) I’ve read, and deeply wise about money, privilege, class and race. (Harriet is the co-star here, and more obnoxious and clueless than ever.) Bonus points to Fitzhugh for Beth Ellen’s mother, a deliciously self-absorbed monster.
“The Chosen” by Chaim Potok, 1967: The fact that this book about two Jewish boys grappling with their religious identities and self-determination in postwar Brooklyn became a must-read for kids everywhere from New York to Honolulu is proof that the universal is found in the specific. And how else would I have learned about gematria?
“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith, 1943: It’s hard to explain what it meant to me, a girl who grew up on a Brooklyn street in an industrial park and looked out her window onto a treeless block full of broken glass and burned-out cars, to meet Francie, who at once made me feel not alone in my want for more, but also proud. That I was from a place so special, that someone wrote a book about it. That someone made the things of my everyday life feel so beautiful with words.
“Bodega Dreams” by Ernesto Quiñonez, 2000: It’s just a deliciously savory book that is alive with the laws, bylaws and codes of growing up in Spanish Harlem. Chino is a good kid who one day is asked a favor by Willie Bodega, the local macher. It gets the big things right — themes of empowerment and the moral complexity of neighborhood heroes — but also the little things, like the racial pecking order among public school teachers and the way nicknames are earned.
“Christodora” (2016) looks at the residents of a building off Tompkins Square Park over the course of several decades. It was written by Tim Murphy, who for years covered the H.I.V. and AIDS crisis for various New York publications, and is told through the eyes of the ACT UP activist Hector, whose trauma and post-trauma are reminders of the real and raw impact the crisis had on the city. But the other characters, too, made this an iconic read for me — Mateo, the adopted son of two tenants, takes a walk on the dark side of growing up as a New York kid; at the same time, his parents — privileged artists — struggle with a changing city. In fact, the changing city is at the heart of the story, which stretches from 1981 to 2021, at which point it’s barely recognizable.
“The Assistant” by Bernard Malamud, 1957: I can’t imagine anyone writing a book like this today — a post-Holocaust story about a poor Jewish grocer in Brooklyn who dreams of the simplest version of a better life, and about his Italian American grifter assistant who struggles to be a good person but is constantly set back by envy, greed and lust. It shows a world of small joys and immigrants and bad luck and trust and faith and the stuff of real life. Plus, it’s got some of the best New York dialogue.
“Motherless Brooklyn” (1999) wears its genre the way it does its setting: loosely and comfortably, a natural fit. I return to Jonathan Lethem’s brilliant novel for the same reasons I return to New York City: the overwhelming density; to feel lost without actually being lost; to feel alone without being alone. To be a detective, wandering around noticing things, and noticing things about the way you notice things — wheels within wheels.
“Go Tell It on the Mountain” by James Baldwin, 1952: Baldwin’s John Grimes is one of New York City’s great characters. The novel takes place in Harlem on his 14th birthday, in 1935, and follows him and his family through the day, broadening to include the histories and travails of their profoundly religious lives (his father, Gabriel, is a lay preacher at the Temple of the Fire Baptized church) set against young John’s more secular forays into the city, to places like Central Park and the cinema. Threaded with powerful biblical language and parallels, the novel weaves together the Grimes’s complex and brutal past in the South and the systemic racism that continues to shape their psyches and lives as a Black family in New York.
“The Furies” by Janet Hobhouse, 1992: Hobhouse’s aptly titled last novel, posthumously published, is barely fiction, drawn as it was from her own experiences. She provides an unsparing account of her character Helen Lowell’s agonizingly enmeshed relationship with her complicated mother, Bett, of growing up precariously in New York City and, in the book’s second half (titled “Men”), of her powerfully willed adult life separate from Bett. Helen’s older lover is a thinly veiled Philip Roth, who wrote of the book: “That at the end of her brief life, Janet Hobhouse could transform her suffering into a confession so precise and evocative and singularly unself-pitying, so strangely full of verve, strikes me as a considerable moral as well as literary achievement.”
“Open City” by Teju Cole, 2011: Cole’s remarkable and unforgettable novel and its flâneur protagonist, Julius, a Nigerian immigrant, illuminate aspects of New York rarely before depicted in fiction. Julius walks the streets of a too-often hidden city, at times revealing its brutal, even genocidal histories, and giving voice to the urban experience of a Black man, whether invisible among white operagoers or unwillingly engaged in conversation in a taxi cab or at the post office. This book, about belonging and not belonging in a supposedly cosmopolitan world, reveals itself to be richer with every reading.
“A Time to Be Born” by Dawn Powell, 1942: A quintessential New York novel, “A Time to Be Born” remains uncannily current 80 years after its publication. Julian Evans, a newspaper tycoon, may be the first New York mogul in fiction who practices yoga and eats only “nonfattening, health-giving” foods. These are only some of his habits that annoy his wife, Amanda, a novelist who’s risen to prominence thanks, in part, to the hyperbolic reviews published in Julian’s papers. But she is also a cunning strategist and a cynical politician. (It’s unclear whether Amanda is based on Clare Boothe Luce — according to a 1956 entry in Powell’s journal, not even the author herself was sure.) Into this power-society labyrinth walks Vicky Haven, a childhood friend of Amanda’s, freshly arrived from Ohio, hoping to make it in the big city.
“The Company She Keeps” by Mary McCarthy, 1942: “The Company She Keeps” consists of six different scenes from Margaret Sargent’s life. Something about this formal structure mimics the effect of living in New York over an extended period of time — the view of our past is fragmented, defined by our itineraries through the city and the people we meet and leave behind along the way. We become a small crowd and often lose ourselves in it. The second part of the novel states that, at 20, Margaret “had come to New York and had her first article accepted by a liberal weekly.” But her feeling of “uniqueness and identity” had been “slowly rubbed away by four years of being inside of the world that looked magic from Portland, Ore.” (It’s no coincidence that this novel, so concerned with identity, should end on a psychoanalyst’s couch.) This is very much a book of its time, not only because it engages with a specific intellectual scene and its hypocrisies but also because it’s a roman à clef portraying some of the most prominent figures from that scene.
“A Rage in Harlem” by Chester Himes, 1957: This is the first of nine books Himes would write featuring two New York Police Department detectives named, amazingly, Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson: “It was said in Harlem that Coffin Ed’s pistol would kill a rock and that Grave Digger’s would bury it.” An uncredited blurb in my copy claims that Himes did for Harlem what Raymond Chandler did for Los Angeles. I love both these writers but have no idea what this comparison ultimately means. Himes is a master who doesn’t need to be explained through any other writer — his dazzling prose, sidesplitting wit and moral complexity are all his own. And parallels to other cities are futile. The velocity with which trouble mounts in this novel — with its counterfeiters, con men and gangs of cross-dressing junkies — can only be achieved in New York. Still, frenzied as it is, the book also takes its time to draw, in great detail, a loving but never romanticizing map of Harlem.
“No Lease On Life” by Lynne Tillman, 1998: It’s a funny, desperate account of living in the East Village of the ’90s with people who throw trash cans around all night, and a running tab of very funny jokes jammed in, vaudeville style.
“Cain’s Book” by Alexander Trocchi, 1960: A heroin-inflected account of both living a bohemian life in the ’50s in West Village bars and cafes and piloting a scow on the Hudson written in beautiful, disintegrating prose.
“Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things” by Gilbert Sorrentino, 1971: An amazing novel centered on the intimate circle of poets living in the West Village in the ’50s and ’60s.
“Rubyfruit Jungle” by Rita Mae Brown, 1973: The quintessential dyke coming-of-age novel, set amid the rough and glamorous terrain of Stonewall-era New York.
“Junky” by William S. Burroughs, 1953: In great prose, Burroughs describes the entirely transactional existence downtown, and in Times Square, of a New York junkie.
“Love, Death and the Changing of the Seasons” by Marilyn Hacker, 1986: Hacker’s novel in sonnets about a love affair between two female poets.
“Dear Cyborgs” by Eugene Lim, 2017: A fantastic novel that holds a remarkable account of the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park.
“The New Rhythum and Other Pieces” by Ronald Firbank, 1962: This is an improbable fragment of a novel by an English exquisite (1886-1926), published posthumously. It’s about New York by someone who never visited New York but wrote rapturously about the beds of strawberries behind Fifth Avenue mansions and about “the mauve mystery of Horatio Street.” When an ancient Roman bust is purchased by a Manhattanite, an admirer exclaims, “What perfect film faces folks had in the year dot.”
“Enemies, a Love Story” by Isaac Bashevis Singer, 1966: It’s about a Holocaust survivor who has three wives, all living in New York. Extremely funny, bleak and sexy.
Back in the 1950s, it was all about “The Recognitions” (1955) by William Gaddis — to grow up and be able to write something as unleashed as that. Others wrote New York novels, lots of them, but nothing quite as good. Then came the fairy tale “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1958) and the novels of Dawn Powell (I remember Gore Vidal telling me about them). Then Harold Brodkey — no matter what he wrote, it came from the tortured mind of a genius from the Midwest by way of Harvard who had an agonized and agonizing relationship with the city and its tastemakers, an impression reinforced by our friendship. Along the way, let’s see: David Markson, Gilbert Sorrentino (two more friendships born of mutual respect, admiration and support). Then there’s the amazing Hortense Calisher and her monumental “Sunday Jews” (2002). I’ve left out many others, mostly intentionally, but, for another example of a mind from the intellectual, moral and aesthetic melting pot of Melville’s New York, published under the loving eyes of The New Yorker and Michael di Capua at Farrar, Straus & Giroux — my old friend Larry Woiwode.
“Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, 1952: Ellison was proud and prickly, but he could be any way he wanted, because he’d written “Invisible Man,” which, in the days before Toni Morrison and the Americanization of magic realism, was treated as the one work of fiction in African American literature that did not need to be interpreted as sociology. It’s is a coming-of-age story in the form of a memoir. However, the violence or the threat of violence throughout sets it apart from the interior life and intimacies of the traditional education and formation novel. Once “Invisible Man” moves into Harlem, the book takes on the surreal qualities for which it is famous, especially in the grand funeral of banners and horns, and then the terrifying riot of shattered glass and kerosene odor Ellison depicts.
The author’s perfectionism counted for everything — in the meticulousness of the novel’s conception, the confidence of its structural devices and especially in the lavishness of its rhetorical displays. A summary of the book does not really give a sense of its constant alertness, its insistent attention to the smallest detail in a scene. Moreover, Ellison succeeds in getting the reader to wear the invisible man’s mask, to look through the eyeholes he provides. Sinister forces want people in Harlem to be guilty of their own deaths. In the end, the invisible man has fallen into a manhole, where he takes up residence to wait out the chaos, to learn to live with his head in the lion’s mouth.
“Dancer From the Dance” by Andrew Holleran, 1978: Set largely in New York in the early 1970s, “Dancer From the Dance” is a hymn to gay liberation in the city, and to male beauty. Cruising is an honorable quest, no matter how sordid the baths or open the subway station. Magic can happen — see the dark-eyed, grave young man who might stay beyond morning. Beautiful, enigmatic Malone has such a face; he’s a Midwesterner who has made, or is trying to make, his peace with being gay, his “constraint.” It is hard for him to be faithful to one man or to hang on to what he says he wants, and when he meets Sutherland, a veteran of every conceivable high who challenges Malone to be real, not to fool himself, he has already lost one true love.
We watch Malone in his travels from door to door to door, and New York City gay nightlife is rendered in shimmering prose. The novel is saturated with the homoerotic, too mesmerized by the cohorts of the brave to be sorry. Holleran was part of a new wave in American literature that said the gay character didn’t have to die at the end of the book anymore. To bring up the subject of same-sex love no longer meant that a dream hunk had to pay for the vision by getting murdered. No one knew when it was published that Holleran’s was to be a portrait of a gone world, a vanished city: “We lived only to dance.” The best fiction turns into a work of history as time goes by.
“Sleepless Nights” by Elizabeth Hardwick, 1979: New York City is the best place for Elizabeth, the first-person narrator of Hardwick’s “Sleepless Nights,” as she concludes early on in the book. We know that she is a reader of profound intensity, and that she is alone but was once part of a we. Hardwick’s husband, the poet Robert Lowell, had treated their marriage and divorce at length in his work. “Sleepless Nights” has telling omissions. The novel is a meditation on a life, and has the feel of lyric poetry in that the “I” is perhaps meant to stand for the general significance of the solitary self.
Hardwick’s “I” is a woman, and the experiences of others that she is drawn to wonder about tend to be those of women. Her social range is broad: a rich girl is a Stalinist with a boyfriend who won’t shape up; here is the sad arithmetic of a drawn-out love triangle, and here are the cleaning women she has watched go about their work. Hardwick remembers from her youth the women alone in their rooming houses. Or she encounters on the street older women at the mercy of their decay. Joan Didion noted that Hardwick’s method was like that of the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in her hunt for the revealing detail. But Hardwick’s freedom of speculation about the people she meets comes from her ability to achieve parity with whomever she is thinking about or talking to. She never talks down; she’s never bamboozled. It is a great historical pageant that New Yorkers are a part of, they who live in this place where people come to get away from somewhere else. In Hardwick’s work, the city is a drama of those who don’t fit elsewhere, a cast of souls calling out for memorial.
“Latin Moon In Manhattan” by Jaime Manrique, 1992: A droll picaresque like no other. Manrique’s fabulous cast of characters includes artists, hustlers and a cat — living la vida loca in the lowdown Times Square of the ’90s.
“Rat Bohemia” by Sarah Schulman, 1995: A tough little gem of a book, set during the height of the AIDS crisis in New York. Schulman’s memorable protagonist is named Rita Mae Weems. Yep, she’s a rat exterminator, and yep, the novel is deeply, darkly funny. (Someone borrowed my first edition and never returned it.)
“Fixer Chao” by Han Ong, 2001: A brilliant take on class, race, sex, feng shui and the gullible cultural elite. More mordant humor. Where else but in New York?
It may be in novels by the great Jewish fiction writers of the mid-20th century that New York City comes through strongest. In “Call It Sleep” (1934), Henry Roth finds a dark sublime in the city’s brutal energy. When Roth’s child hero looks up at the Statue of Liberty, he notices that “shadow flattened the torch she bore to a black cross against flawless light — the blackened hilt of a broken sword.” In neighborhoods like Brownsville and the Lower East Side, boys climb to their tenements’ tin-covered roofs to fly kites, which other boys aim slingshots at, and when pigeons wheel in the air, the birds seem suspended “like a poised and never-raveling smoke.” The language is a high-modernist juxtaposition of street urchin pidgin, Yiddish English and finely observed free indirect discourse — New York’s voice is plural.
By the time Saul Bellow publishes “The Victim” in 1947, the Jewish novel’s geography in New York extends well beyond the ghettos. Bellow’s hero, Asa Leventhal, works at a magazine in Lower Manhattan, where his boss is a WASP; lives in Irving Place, where his building’s super is Puerto Rican; and has to trek out to Staten Island to check on his sister-in-law, who is Italian American. “It’s a very Jewish city,” an anti-Semite in the book declares, upset that New York no longer seems to be made exclusively for the likes of him. As Leventhal is stalked by that anti-Semite, who is convinced that Leventhal caused him to lose his job and his wife, Leventhal is tempted to see himself through the cracked mirror of the anti-Semite’s mind-set and has to wrestle his way free of the temptation.
Responses have been edited and condensed.
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