Good novels are hard to write regardless of the subject, but a novelist who aspires to write about gentrification stands before an Everest. Tackle the subject from one point of view, and you unfairly neglect others. Try to cover it in all its complexity — race, economics, policing — and you’ll likely stand accused of cultural appropriation. Or, worse, you risk entering the territory of the film “Crash,” with its strenuously pat let’s-all-try-to-understand-each-other message.
“Bed-Stuy Is Burning,” the debut novel by Brian Platzer, is a “Crash”-y novel that’s intermittently alert to its “Crash”-iness. At its center are a white couple — Aaron, a former rabbi battling a gambling addiction, and Amelia, a magazine writer — who are raising their infant son in Brooklyn’s predominantly black Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. They strive to be good neighbors, but neighborliness is fragile in the wake of a police shooting of an unarmed 12-year-old boy. Antoinette, the couple’s nanny, “could feel the anger in the air chirping alongside the birds.”
That anger eventually explodes, but the mood before that happens is less one of rising tension than of novelistic furniture being carefully arranged. Caught-between-two-worlds characterizations abound. Antoinette is a Christian, but also becoming a Muslim. Jupiter is a good-hearted black handyman, but his son takes part in anti-police protests and keeps a list of gentrifying whites. Amanda wants to write about Bed-Stuy, but does she just want to advance her career? Aaron’s faith could see this crisis through. But as neighborhood riots start, he’s lapsed and playing the ponies.
Such contrivances frustrate because Platzer clearly knows his turf. A Bed-Stuy resident himself, he convincingly sketches out how thin the neighborhood’s peaceful veneer is without lazily singling out one cause of dysfunction. (Though he often side-eyes the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy.) “Guns that Bloomberg had made it his business to stop coming … they’d always been there,” he writes. “And now they were out in the open.”
Platzer is also savvy about how the media oversimplifies racial narratives, as when Amanda imagines what would happen if she appeared on TV: “She’d have to be the kindhearted white gentrifier who was trying to understand her angry black neighbors.”
This awareness of the complexity of the neighborhood, though, is often at cross-purposes with the tidy narrative line of the novel itself. The couple’s infant son is put through earnestly symbolic paces (at one point he’s placed in a barricade of religious books), and the core couple are guided to redemptive moments in the midst of the chaos. Platzer covers a lot of bases, but it’s clear whose outcome we’re to be most invested in. Is Aaron and Andrea’s success a matter of good-heartedness or privilege? Platzer wants us to ask. It’s a good question. A less deliberate, schematic novel would make a reader more invested in seeking answers.
Mark Athitakis is a writer in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”
Bed-Stuy Is Burning
By: Brian Platzer.
Publisher: Atria Books, 326 pages, $26.