Who’s Writing Real Brooklyn Stories?


Apple-crisp air, periwinkle sky. A world-class day in the Borough of Storytellers. As it does each third Sunday in September, on September 22, the Brooklyn Book Festival took over the esplanade in front of Borough Hall and adjacent buildings in Brooklyn Heights.

Writers are the latest Brooklyn demographic to become a national punch line. Like Jackie Gleason, only skinny. Last year, the festival claimed 40,000 visitors. —They haven’t released this year’s figures, but the joint was packed.

The list of presenters was a mix of Bold-Face Names (Colum McCann, Lois Lowry, Jules Feiffer) and serious up-and-comers. The panels covered a judicious mix of topics, weighted toward the international and multicultural.

Yet Brooklyn itself was almost an asterisk at this year’s festival. There were only two sessions on the most literary borough (and one in the preceding week of Bookend events). “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” featured actors reading works by classic Brooklyn writers (but not necessarily set here) followed by some commentary by Pete Hamill. Hamill was also on the second Brooklyn-centric panel, moderated by Penina Roth, the organizer of the Franklin Park reading series in Crown Heights, along with Adele Waldman, author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., about, yes, a young Brooklyn writer, and Adrian Tomine, the cartoonist and author of the graphic novel, New York Drawings.

I have to say it gave me a pang to see Brooklyn lit reduced to an obligatory homage to the oldsters and a focus on the (I swore I wasn’t going to use the word) hipster culture. It sounds crotchety to say this, but people used to write about Brooklyn’s cultures and their conflicted relationships with each other and mainstream America. Is that not a hip subject anymore?

Photo by Flickr Creative Commons user Meg Lessard

Here’s what the census says: Brooklyn’s seventy-one square miles are home to 2.5 million people, including 93 ethnic groups speaking 136 languages. Brooklyn is New York City’s most populous borough, the seventh most populous county in the U.S. Though immigrants are everywhere in the U.S. now, Brooklyn’s diversity remains extraordinary. On any Brooklyn street corner, you can find head scarves, head phones, payis, piercings. Strivers. Bums. Survivors. Will they make good? Fall in love with someone of a different race or religion? Kill each other?

Brooklyn has become a brand—a name to put on beer and jeans—that paradoxically signifies authenticity. It’s where designers, artists, and independent media types go to meet, greet, spawn, and write about each other. Let’s go wild and say there are 50,000 people in the lit biz in Brooklyn. What of the other 2.45 million Brooklynites? Who’s writing their stories nowadays?

I remember a panel at the 2010 Brooklyn Book Festival, moderated by essayist Phillip Lopate (native and resident), about whether Brooklyn was losing its authenticity. “What, middle-class people aren’t authentic?” Lopate said.

Of course, they are. But the Brooklyn striver is one of America’s most compelling national characters. Brooklyn is (or symbolizes) the bridge between where people came from and the American dream—a bridge they may never cross.

A few years ago, I developed a full-blown Brooklyn lit obsession and read all the novels, memoirs, short stories, histories, poems, and essays by Brooklyn writers I could. I consider Brooklyn writers those from Brooklyn (or who spent significant time there) and set their work in the borough.

I wanted to define what makes a quintessential Brooklyn story. Ethnic protagonist? Yearning? Brooklyn landmarks? Dodgers references? Is there some ineffable essence of Brooklyn beyond kitsch and nostalgia that certain stories convey?

I concluded that True Brooklyn stories reflect the conviction that Brooklyn is a test of guts ya can’t get no place else. The narrator/writer/protagonist may hate Brooklyn, but feels nonetheless superior for having survived it. A true Brooklyn story can be about insiders who want nothing more than to leave, or outsiders who come to Brooklyn searching for an authenticity that’s missing in the rest of America–from their own lives, anyway.

In the insider category, I put the immigrant classics: Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City, Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant, and Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones. In the outsider group, I put Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again, William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, and L.J. Davis’s A Meaningful Life.

Bridging the two is Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, the first classic of the back-to-Brooklyn generation, the story of the son of gentrifiers, a white kid in a black neighborhood in the 1970s. (For synopses of all eight, please click the link.)

There’s a fierce, urgent quality, and yes, an authenticity, to all these books. I’m surely missing some, but only two books I’ve come across in the two years since my Brooklyn lit marathon tackle the big Brooklyn subjects—cultural and ethnic conflict, assimilation, and poverty—and come close to capturing the urgency of the Brooklyn classics.

One is Deborah Feldman’s memoir, UnorthodoxThe Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. Her story is certainly of Brooklyn and urgent. Feldman, who was born into the Satmar Hasidic sect in the Williamsburg neighborhood. Like other Hasidim, the Satmars wear traditional dress and speak Yiddish. They are among the strictest Orthodox Jewish communities, shunning contact with non-Jews and less-observant Jews. Feldman chronicles her cloistered childhood, loveless arranged marriage, and rupture with the community. Feldman’s own mother had left the Satmars years before and was shunned. Feldman had little contact with her. Her father was developmentally disabled, and as Feldman tells it, his family deceived hers about his handicaps in desperation to marry him off. Feldman was raised by her grandparents and a cold, controlling aunt, and married off at seventeen.

Modernity vs tradition is a recurring theme in Brooklyn narratives. Alfred Kazin was also from a religious Jewish family.In his memoir, A Walker in the City, he describes his yearning to leave Jewish “Brunsvil.” But he fled Brooklyn because it was a neither the old country or the new. No pogroms, but no future, either for a brilliant, ambitious boy who wanted to join the intellectual elite.

Feldman’s flight wasn’t from Brooklyn, but religious orthodoxy. In particular, she sought to control her own body and sexuality, which are virtual public goods in a community that places utmost importance on reproduction.

Reading Feldman’s book, it’s impossible not to think of Chaim Potok’s Brooklyn novels, My Name Is Asher Lev, in which a young Hasid becomes a painter, and The Chosen, about a rabbi’s brilliant son who leaves his Hasidic community to study psychology. As with Feldman, the protagonists’ struggle is not against Brooklyn, but closing off the non-Orthodox world. Brooklyn is much more present in Potok’s books than in Feldman’s. But in neither do Brooklyn’s distinctive qualities—its extraordinary diversity, historic violence, its landmarks, and image—play decisive roles. The stories could arguably be set in any city that has a Chasidic community.

Which brings me to Ivy Pochoda’s Visitation Street, set in Red Hook. The choice of neighborhood alone signals Pochoda’s  intention to write a Brooklyn Novel. Since the mid-nineteenth century, Red Hook has been literary shorthand for Brooklyn the Bad. H.P. Lovecraft’s Gothico-racist fantasy “The Horror at Red Hook” swarms with filthy, swarthy, devil-worshipping foreigners. On the Waterfront was set there. In Hubert Selby’s 1964 novel, Last Exit to Brooklyn,  the neighborhood is a cesspool of repressed homosexuality, violence, and prejudice.

Red Hook today is a semi-industrial neighborhood of spectacular harbor views, a smattering of trendy businesses, and persistent poverty. The smaller white ethnic community—historically Italian and Irish—lives near the waterfront. The projects are African-American and Hispanic.

Cut off from the much wealthier brownstone neighborhoods of Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill by the Gowanus Expressway, Red Hook has been the next hot thing in real estate for at least ten years. It got national attention after Hurricane Sandy, when the neighborhood was under eleven feet of water, and the projects had no power or heat for weeks.

Visitation Street is set in summer, 2006, just after the opening of the Brooklyn cruise ship terminal, which along with the gourmet supermarket and IKEA that followed, were supposed to float all boats.

Pochoda grew up in Cobble Hill (where I live) and knows Red Hook. There are good stock characters, and I don’t mean this pejoratively: neighborhoods are built from stock characters. There’s the cop determined to frame a young black man. The Italian fireman who cuts off his daughter’s friendship with a black boy from the projects—never mind that she’s the bad influence.

Visitation Street is partly about gentrification, but it’s not an anti-gentrification polemic.

A good Brooklyn story tawks to ya, and Pochoda is a good mimic. She does the voices—Brooklyn girl bravado (“He grabbed my ass. He totally grabbed it.”… “Your butt fell into his hand is all,” Val said.) Drunk repartee—(“Keep your mind off my students.” “I wouldn’t screw them with someone else’s dick.”) In places, Pochoda’s voice veers a little too conspicuously toward Junot Diaz’s—“This is how you walk home. This is how you look for June.” The opening passage channels Jonathan Lethem: “Summer is everybody’s party. It belongs to the recently arrived hipsters… It belongs to the Puerto Rican families with foil trays of meat, sending charcoal smoke signals… even to the old men in front of the VFW…” There’s also a beautiful and subtle homage to Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant in Ren, the good/bad kid who both steals from and helps the grocer.

Here’s what happens: One hot night, two bored white girls who can’t wait to grow up and leave the hood, June and Val, get the spectacularly bad idea to take a rubber raft out on the treacherous Buttermilk Channel between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Come morning, only Val washes ashore, barely alive. Jonathan, the man who finds her, is washed-up, too; he’s a child actor who never made the cut as a grown-up, a barfly who gets by writing jingles and teaching music appreciation at Val’s Catholic school. He’s white, from a wealthy family, but does zero for Red Hook property values. Cree, a black kid whose father was shot and whose family communes with his ghost, is the last to see the girls afloat. Then there’s Fadi, the Arab bodega owner, who knows everyone and sees himself as a neighborhood investigative journalist.

Outwardly, the plot revolves around the search for June. But we know June is dead. The real question is will two other young lives be ruined as a result. Will Val turn into a sad Red Hook tale: kid has bad break and never recovers? Will Cree be blamed for June’s death?

It certainly looks that way. Val, consumed with guilt, heads for a breakdown, which includes falling in love with Jonathan. But he pulls back in time. He shadows her to keep her from doing more dumb things. He knows what guilt does to you. His unlovable mother committed suicide, and he blames himself.

Cree, too, has a shadow—Ren, a graffiti artist, who keeps him out of trouble, beats up kids who insult his “moms,” gussies up his father’s old wrecked boat. Then Ren turns out to be his father’s killer; as a young boy, he fired a gun out a window because some gangbanger said so. After doing time, he has come back to redeem himself.

Ren turns out to be the key to almost everything good that comes out of this mess. Toward the end, we learn that the morning after the raft capsized, he found June’s body and hid it in an abandoned container to protect Cree from being unjustly blamed. Fadi gets the $15,000 reward June’s parents have offered for finding the body, which he gives to Cree, who will use it to go to college.

Interestingly, the story starts out being about insiders who want to leave Red Hook, but only Jonathan the outsider does. After saving Val again, from a dealer who’s abusing her, he pushes her back into the arms of her family and leaves town. He goes back to his father, possibly on the path to recovery. There’s reason to be optimistic. Cree, who has a strong, loving family, will do O.K. Val, on the other hand, who started as our protagonist, fades back into the neighborhood. A nice kid, who never had much going for her. She’s the one we worry about.

Brooklyn is certainly a test of guts in Visitation Street. It’s probably impossible to write a contemporary version of say, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, one that appeals to adults anyway. Contemporary readers would be skeptical that all it takes is pluck and hard work to lift a kid out of poverty in Brooklyn nowadays. Yet, it’s Francie’s spirit—which we still recognize as a quality that can produce amazing transformations—that makes her success possible and makes us continue to love the book and believe in Brooklyn characters. In Visitation Street, we find that spirit, not in Val, but in Ren and Cree.

Unlike many Brooklyn novels, Pochoda’s isn’t a personal cri de coeur. But the book pushes us to ask what life is like behind the gritty streetscapes that make such fantastic backdrops for fashion shoots and films, and it asks us, writers and readers, to push back against the perception that real Brooklyn life happens in cafés.


Julia Lichtblau is the Book Review Editor for The Common. Her writing is forthcoming in Narrative and The Florida Review and has been published in Best Paris Stories, Temenos, Ploughshares blog, Narrative, Pindeldyboz, and Tertulia.

Photo by Flickr Creative Commons user Meg Lessard

Who’s Writing Real Brooklyn Stories?

Related Posts

Thirty-Seven Theses on Time and Memory

Why do we keep hold of certain things, and nothing of others? Now I can remember, with almost cinematic granularity, an afternoon when a veterinarian came to our fifth-grade class to dissect a white rat for our science unit. I feel the heat of the room.

A coffee shop at sunset. The foreground is focused on a cappuccino; the background is blurred out of focus. People sit and talk.

I Am, I Said

Shorts, standard walking shoes. He looked like someone I might meet hiking the Shoal Creek Trail. And not give a second thought. But the glance had happened; the silent exchange had happened. The unspoken had changed me, changed him. I could see what was not visible.

Truck on the highway

Lightning Talk on I-90

I was somewhere outside Rome when I saw the grief truck. Seriously? I said aloud, incredulous, to no one. Incredulous, and a little giddy: I couldn’t help but be delighted by signs, even bad ones; I wanted, more than any particular message, evidence of any message at all.