by Jennifer Egan
published by Corsair, 2017
My rating * * * *
After her Pulitzer Prize winning, experimental novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan has turned to the historic novel. In Manhattan Beach she delves (both metaphorically and literally) into the murky worlds of New York gangsters of the 30s and 40s and deep sea diving. Think Jimmy Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces, or any mobster movie set after the end of Prohibition then the upheaval of the Second World War. Into this unpredictable world throw Anna Kerrigan, a young Irish girl who, from an early age has the ‘logic of mechanical parts in her fingertips’ and wants to be a military diver, fixing battleships for the war effort.
Dexter Styles is the corrupt nightclub owner – charismatic and charming but conflicted. We first see him through Anna’s child eyes, inviting her father to his beach house. But it’s not a relationship of equals: her father is only the delivery man (or sometimes receiver) of ‘an envelope, sometimes a package’ – protection money. Dexter is comfortably married into an established New York family, sick of the mobster life and all the danger it entails. But he isn’t the Big Cheese: he’s compromised by his past. There’s no way out. Well, only one and he doesn’t want to take it. When Kerrigan (Anna’s father) disappears, she and her mother have to look after her crippled sister and Anna turns to Dexter. Now there are two hooks pulling us through the novel: What’s happened to Kerrigan and Will Anna tell Dexter she knows what he’s up to?
Egan has clearly researched the novel’s background minutely (see the acknowledgements) but it shows. Too much detail about cars, clothes and the process of diving slow the novel down and distract us from the story. Which is a shame because the world she creates is believable and vivid, the characters engaging and their stories moving. Then about two thirds of the way through something goes badly wrong. We’ve had a privileged and nuanced view of Anna and Dexter’s inner lives via a very close third person, but now we see everything from a great distance. It’s all ‘tell’ with not much ‘showing’ and loses momentum, while piling on the detail and incidents. Even a shark attack and the horrors of surviving for weeks in an open lifeboat hardly register.
Jennifer Egan is a gifted writer but Manhattan Beach is ultimately a disappointing follow-up. Yet, in spite of its flaws it’s a wonderful and intriguing novel and I’d still recommend you read it. I just wish Egan had an editor who could suggest cutting the word count and some of the unnecessary detail.