What Jennifer Egan gives us in her novel “Manhattan Beach,” her first since the Pulitzer-winning “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” is good, old-fashioned writing — or old-fashioned good writing, which is something else again.
There are faded showgirls, conflicted gangsters, toffs and thugs and down-on-their-luck working stiffs, one of whom happens to be a spunky young woman working at a shipyard in wartime Brooklyn and trying to keep her family, or what’s left of it, together. There are secrets lovingly meted out, personal histories revealed apace with the plot, hidden and mistaken identities and bravura scenes (e.g., shipwreck, deep sea diving) rife with period detail.
That spunky striver is Anna Kerrigan, whose family features an ailing, crippled younger sister, a charismatic absent father, a long suffering mother who sews and a warmhearted aunt stuck somewhere between dame and floozy.
The secret of her father’s disappearance seems to reside with that conflicted gangster, one Dexter Styles, a deep, dark, magnetic character, and it seems inevitable that his and Anna’s stories, which briefly touch in an opening flashback to an encounter on Manhattan Beach, will eventually converge.
How they converge is another story.
Meanwhile, the sister’s condition declines, taking her mother’s full attention, and Anna, after a brief stint at Brooklyn College, is supporting the family by working at the shipyard, measuring parts destined for battleships. She desperately wants to be a diver, to do the underwater work, and her campaign to land and master this job produces some of the book’s most powerful scenes, with some of the author’s most meticulous research on display.
Anna’s plucky endeavor also underscores one of the novel’s most salient themes: what constrains one’s place in the world, especially a woman’s. As a working-class woman in 1940s America, Anna finds her options at once narrowed and expanded by her time. However she might prove herself, she is denied a “man’s job.” But in a shipyard on wartime footing, where the demand for labor far outstrips the supply, she has a rare opportunity.
Each character in “Manhattan Beach” is looking for a place on a line finely stretched between choice and chance. Dexter Styles’ position is clearly framed by his high-society father-in-law, when, late in the game, Dexter proposes going straight: “It’s a pity we’re forced to make the choices that govern the whole of our lives when we’re so goddam young.”
Anna’s father, Eddie Kerrigan, has the answer to that: “Luck was the single thing that could rearrange facts.”
What luck has in store for Eddie Kerrigan, we’ll see.
Much of what these characters think and do seems more explained than felt — and yet they’re real enough to be moving. Much of what we see and hear — in a cramped apartment or the shipyard, at a nightclub or aboard ship — seems awash in particulars for the sake of verisimilitude, and yet it is convincing enough to take us where we’re supposed to be. It is when we come to the sea, “an infinite hypnotic expanse that could look like scales, or wax; hammered silver; wrinkled flesh,” that artifice and experience invariably merge, and we witness the full reach of Egan’s writing. “The strange, violent, beautiful sea. … It touched every part of the world, a glittering curtain drawn over a mystery.”
Ellen Akins is a writer and writing teacher in Wisconsin.
By: Jennifer Egan.
Publisher: Scribner, 438 pages, $28.
Event: Pen Pals Lecture Series, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 26 and 11 a.m. Oct. 27, Hopkins Center for the Arts, 1111 Mainstreet, Hopkins. Tickets $40-50. 612-543-8112.