My people swarmed in from around the country, and even the Continent; from vaudeville houses, and ten-twenty-thirties, and circuses and bawdy houses and Son-of-Ham shows. They came from the medical schools, where they were trotted out every hour, on the hour, as examples of perverted physiognomy…They came from working their pickpocket scams or crawling among the gear wheels of gigantic machinery or serving some particularly delicate inclination in the most exclusive of brothels in short, from anyplace where a fine hand was needed…”
Its Trick the Dwarf talking, one of the cast of caricatures that electrify Dreamland,Kevin Bakers carnival of a novel. Trick is recounting the founding of The Little City, a freak haven for fantastic misfits the Dwarf helps erect on Coney Island. It’s a city within a city, eccentric microcosm of the world Baker celebrates, turn-of-the-century New York.
Chief researcher for Harry Evans massive The American Centuryand author of a baseball novel, Sometimes You See It Coming, Baker here pens historical fiction of an intricate, epic, fabulous sort. Trick is only the most patent of its curiosities. Wheeler dealer Big Tim Sullivan, a kind of jocose, more venal proto-Tip ONeill, gangster Gyp the Blood, rebel seamstress Esther Abramowitz and her bad-boy beau, Kid Twist all the stars of Dreamland are out-sized, mythic, extravagant. Hovering also, like strange gods at the periphery, are Bakers semi-slapstick versions of Freud and Jung as gnomic tourists discovering the New World (Freud shudders, Jung thrills). Baker takes us on a tour of the times the Triangle Factory fire, Tammany Halls labyrinthine politics, the pride and struggle of the immigrant Jews and Irish, the rise of early feminism, of labor unions, the monumental effort, through cunning, crime or heroism, of our forebears to make it in one tough town.
Peppered with Yiddish, period slang and snatches of period pop songs, driven by pell-mell verbs and rendered cinematic with bold strokes of hyper-vivid color, Bakers prose makes Dreamland riotous, a psychedelic read. In so doing, he avoids the clunky expository taint of much historical fiction. Among the effete, the genre has long drawn sneers its critics damn it for romanticizing the past or find, in its imaginative use of history, either too much ideology or too little inventiveness. Colleen McCullough’s marvelous and meticulously researched novels of ancient Rome or Edward Rutherford’s sagas of London and Russia are among the many exemplars that quash such quibbling: Indeed, because of its vast scope, historical fiction can provide adventure that dwarfs those thin novels of contemporary quiet crisis that more readily draw praise. Dreamlands obvious antecedent, E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime,another kaleidoscopic take on 19th-century New York, also proves the power of the historical novel. Taking his turn at the form, Baker proves more than up to half the job: His handling of the history part of historical fiction is masterful. He’s not quite so deft at the fiction part.
By turns a love story, a detective yarn, a witty postmodern commentary on the texts the characters themselves read everything from Horatio Alger tales to Marxist tracts and psychological treatises the book sometimes gives way under the stress of the very ambition that makes it impressive. The scrappy Esther, for instance, the novels most sympathetic character and the one with the most interesting story the tension between her growing radicalism and her ex-rabbi fathers disappointment in the modern world after a while is subsumed in the extravagance of the larger narrative. Too often, Bakers people themselves function only as “gear wheels of gigantic machinery.”
And yet Dreamland still compels. Kevin Baker is terrific making the past feel familiar: The loves and battles of these characters seem very much our own and, more specifically, their psychological and political concerns still dominate our turn of the century. He’s even better, however, at conveying the exotica of America only a hundred years ago. He pulls the ace trick of the historical novelist makes us nostalgic for a past we’ve never ourselves lived. The energy, the raffish charm, the brutality, the sweetness of Dreamlands New York makes the current Big Apple seem a little small in comparison. A colossal entertainment, Dreamland entrances. At its best when Baker renders history surreal the book exactly embodies its title. And this dream is one from which the reader only reluctantly awakes.