Thomas Mallon

Time and Again This novel of turn-of-the-century New York covers Coney Island, gangsters and the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.

Kevin Baker’s jampacked novel of New York City circa 1910 rushes between lower Manhattan and Coney Island like a wild amusement-park ride on a continuous loop. The author shanghais all sorts of real-life Tammany pols, Bowery gangsters, factory girls and carnival attractions to join his own inventions inside a book that teems with violence, humor, information and hustle. Dreamland is historical fiction at its most entertaining and, in a number of spots, most high-handed.

The novel’s whirligig of plots more or less all proceed from an incident that follows a heavily bet dog-and-rat fight in a basement off Baxter Street. Kid Twist incurs the lasting enmity of his fellow gangster Gyp the Blood when he hits Gyp with a shovel in order to save a newsboy (or so he thinks) from having his back broken across Gyp’s knee. Now on the run from “the most dangerous lunatic in New York,” Kid soon makes matters much worse by romancing a girl he doesn’t know is Gyp’s sister Esther.

The little fellow Kid has saved is actually Trick the Dwarf, a performer at Coney Island’s newest and most magical park, Dreamland. Trick sometimes likes to pass for a newsboy, since “with a little makeup, I could not only hide my misshapen body, I could be young again. And what, after all, is the greater deformity-size or age?” In gratitude for his rescue from Gyp, Trick hides Kid Twist at Coney Island’s Tin Elephant Hotel, where eventually Esther joins him. Trick himself is in love with the tiny, enchantingly mad Carlotta, whom he contrives to make queen of a built-to-scale Little City, the novel’s version of Lilliput, a community of 300 midgets that actually existed in Dreamland.

Trying to overcome the same tenement life her brother escaped through crime, Esther first toils in a sweatshop, stitching sleeve linings for coats, and later takes a job at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. With the encouragement of Clara Lemlich-the bravest kochleffl (rabble-rouser) of all the young working women and a real-life activist who can be found in histories of the great Triangle fire-Esther is transformed from wage slave to agitator.

Lumbering between the worlds of labor and crime and amusement is Big Tim Sullivan, the sentimental political boss and investor in Coney Island. A builder of the crude ethnic bridges that would create the city’s modern body politic (”Big Tim’s specialty had always been Jews”), Sullivan pushed through labor reforms and the famous law against concealed weapons that bears his name even as he stole elections and—as Baker has it—stood behind the famous murder of the gambler Herman Rosenthal, for which the police lieutenant Charles Becker was eventually executed.

Dreamland is terrific fun, though ultimately something less than the sum of its gaudy episodes. Its gangland and labor narratives tend to move in more predictable increments than the action out at Coney Island; Trick, the only character whose tale gets told in the first person, becomes the most real and affecting one in the novel. The book’s best lines belong to him: “Ours was the most credulous of ages, for everything came true.” Baker manages to throw everything together for a fiery dual climax—Dreamland and the Triangle factory both burned in 1911—but the 500-page ride to it provides a lot of bumps along with the thrills. Baker works his italicized refrains rather hard and occasionally seems to be blocking the movie instead of writing the book. Frequent interruptions to follow Freud and Jung on their roughly contemporaneous American travels add nothing.

Baker is also the author of Sometimes You See It Coming(1993), a delightful baseball novel with some of the same vividness and ramshackle construction displayed by Dreamland.He has more recently worked as Harold Evans’s chief researcher on The American Century,an experience that no doubt helped him stuff his new book with all its song and food and spectacles.

In a concluding note on his sources, Baker offers a modest manifesto for historical fiction, saying its essential obligations are to “a good story,” “human nature” and “an essential core of truth”—which is to say, the forest of plausibility instead of every factual tree. He confesses to a number of chronological manipulations—allowing, for instance, George McClellan, “son of the famous Civil War flop by the same name,” to preside as Mayor over the book’s action, even though McClellan had left office before the novel’s principal events occurred. Baker hopes that readers will “amuse themselves sniffing out the real, unnamed, historical personages” he has put into the narrative. Some readers may, but their amusement can only make them conscious of the author and his method; it will hardly keep their disbelief suspended.

All historical fiction requires manipulation and outright lying, but rearrangement of the public record on the scale conducted by Baker really makes for an allied genre one might call “historical fantasy,” a worthy but more perilous endeavor. Readers who don’t know the history end up misinformed; those who do know it may end up irritated or perplexed. Baker provides so much pleasure here that one hates to complain, but he might be better off with a clearer set of rules for himself. Naming a composite of “the great Coney Island entrepreneurs” after his brother-in-law (Matthew Brinckerhoff, acknowledged in the notes) is a charming self-indulgence, on the order of the inconspicuous self-image a cathedral sculptor puts amid the bigger gargoyles. Naming two Triangle factory foremen “Kristol” and “Podhoretz” is a lousy joke, and a sure-fire illusion killer for every scene in which the two appear.

The publicity for Dreamland inevitably pronounces it “in the tradition of E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.” I would venture to say, even with all the reservations above, that Dreamland is the better book. Its history and biography are less potted, and more often than not it truly inhabits its characters and era. There is a coldness to Doctorow’s famous and much more pulled-together novel, a latter-day superiority that doesn’t do emotional or moral justice to the period it’s reconstructing. There’s nothing arm’s-length about Baker. He loves all the “cigars, and oysters and roasting corn, the shady characters and the women of bad reputation” he can crowd onto the page. Ragtimeremains just that, a time, whereas Baker rightly tries to treat the past as a place, whose strange shoreline he’s just sighted, like one of the startled immigrants in his bounteous book.

Thomas Mallon’s most recent novels are Henry and Clara and Dewey Defeats Truman.

Copyright 1999 ©The New York Times Company