Triburbia, a first novel from author Karl Taro Greenfeld, is set in Tribeca, an upscale, trendy neighbourhood located in Lower Manhattan. This unique historic neighbourhood was a commercial centre for the textile industry in the 19th century, and for its vast lofts, the area became an artistic mecca in the 70s, but then morphed into a popular and pricey residential area.
Triburbia is described as a novel about a “group of fathers” who meet “each morning at a local Tribeca coffee shop after walking their children to their exclusive school.” I suppose we have to start somewhere with the description, but that description doesn’t quite fit and argues for a structure that isn’t there. While there are a couple of meetings between the fathers at the coffee shop, it’s not a main event. Triburbia is a series of inter-connecting stories exploring the convergence of various residents and the sometimes-uneasy, underhand and competitive relationships between them. If it’s the author’s intention to argue that location! location! says a lot about who we are, how we live, and the values we hold, then in Triburbia, an extremely entertaining, lively and witty novel, he succeeded admirably.
Set in the post-boom of 2008, the neighbourhood has gone through gentrification, the explosion of property values, and now is in a downward slide. For the families who live there, it’s the place to live, but some of its cachet is fading. Some of the residents moved there while the area was affordable, while for others, it’s just one more move in the never-ending movement upwards. Through the chapters told by various narrators, both male and female, we learn the circumstances surrounding just how each person ended up in Tribeca. One character, a puppeteer, the poorest of the lot, moved from a dump on Second Avenue to a roomy loft for $280 a month rent. Compared to the other characters, the puppeteer has lived in Tribeca for the longest period of time, and he’s seen the businesses move out, the artists move in, and then the gentrification process that rocketed the neighbourhood into affluence. While his artistic career never took off, he remains working as a repairman, in his rent controlled space with his daughter like ”aboriginals who were slowly being driven out by the wealthier, colonizing settlers.” The puppeteer’s daughter, Sadie, rubs shoulders with the extremely wealthy through babysitting and takes her father’s advice to be “ruthless” when it comes to getting what you want from life.
While the puppeteer’s story is a sad tale of failed talent and ambition, the other stories range in levels of humour. There’s the memoirist, married to former magazine editor, Marni, who has written a number of bestselling and sensational books about his troubled past–including one titled Seven Times Down, Eight Times Up about beating a “nasty drug habit with a combination of martial arts discipline–picked up during my years in Japan–and a tough, go-it-alone ethos.” The memoirist’s stellar and affluent career comes to a screeching halt when some nasty rumours surface questioning the book’s authenticity. There’s also a gregarious celebrity chef who tests the patience of his wife, and Brick, the sculptor who realises his wife looks a lot like his mistress.
Then there’s Asian-American, Mark, a sound engineer who’s married to Brooke, the only living child of a very wealthy Connecticut family. Now a landlord whose main non-wifely income comes from the rents he collects, he feels that he’s ‘landed’ in the upper echelons of American society by pure accident. The vague feeling that he’s somehow a fraud in his own life is accentuated when stories circulate about a neighbourhood teenage girl who was molested. The sketch of the child molester looks uncannily like Mark, but he gets little sympathy from his pot-smoking wife or film producer, Sumner, the man who thinks his neighbourhood is under assault by pedophiles.
Here’s Mark discovering flyers about the suspect in his daughter’s backpack:
“Why do you have so many?”
“I took a lot because they look like you,” Cooper says.
“We’re gonna draw on them,” Penny adds.
I say that they shouldn’t have them and that I am throwing them away. The suddenly angry tone of my voice shocks them and Penny starts crying, running into the dining room where Brooke is flipping through a Pottery Barn catalog. I can hear Penny sobbing, “Daddy yelled at me in a mean voice.”
As she consoles our daughter, Brooke looks at me sternly. Her eyes are red, veiny; she’s already had her late afternoon/early evening toke.
You have to keep on your toes when reading Triburbia as a character can be central in one chapter and then is mentioned in a minor aside a few chapters down the line. While the characters in Triburbia are not as eccentric as those in Daniel Kehlman’s Fame, nonetheless, the format and the humour connects the two books. Of course with books with multiple narrators, it’s inevitable that you end up with favourites, and the author doesn’t aim to get us to like these people who are all frauds on some level or another–in fact by the time the book, you’ll probably dislike most of them. My two favourite characters are Rankin, the predatory gangster, and the utterly delinquent, morally reprehensible playwright, Levi-Levy.
Here’s Rankin on his wife, Sydney:
Rankin had been pleasantly surprised that Sydney, a stripper-turned-mother-and-wife, was mothering and wifing like the outer-borough Jewess she was supposed to be, albeit one with artificially enhanced cleavage. Baked brisket and roast chicken and her sweet-and-sour stuffed cabbage and she never failed to collect the kids at 2:50 p.m. and deposit them as required at Little League or Hebrew school or soccer practice. He originally thought he had been marrying down but actually he had married up. The woman was a warrior mother, as efficient at cajoling broccoli into Jeremy’s gullet as she had been wheedling bills out of the wallets of her lap-dance clients.
Rankin and Sydney’s Waterloo occurs when their 8-year-old daughter falls foul of the class princess, Mark and Brooke’s snotty daughter, Cooper. Rankin contemplates, for just one second, hiring a nine-year old to beat up his daughter’s arch-enemy, but then Sydney opts for the more reasoned route.
Playwright Levi-Levy warrants a whole novel to himself.
“So erratic was Levi_Levy’s parenting, fidelity, and wakefulness that his abandoning his loft following an argument with his pretty (if always exhausted-looking) wife, Charmaine, elicited neither comment nor even notice in the neighbourhood.”
Levi-Levy is thrown out of his home for two unforgivable events: 1) a credit card bill for a month’s out-of-control spending which exceeds $10,000 along with the fact he had an “urgent errand” and told his ten-year old son to drive the family SUV “to go pick up Mommy.” Levy-Levi is, according to his wife, an “unrepentant recidivist.“
Charmaine guesses that her errant husband is having yet another affair and decides to strike back:
Instead of anger or betrayal of frustration or jealousy she felt that perhaps it was for the best. She had noticed among her circle, among the fellow parents, an enhanced friskiness in the air; an upsurge in mufky-fufky that was leading to some divorces, separations, and broken homes. She wondered, how many other affairs simply were being quietly buried? Why shouldn’t these husbands and wives have a fling now, during this last stage where they might pass as sexually attractive, or at least before the sight of their own naked bodies repulsed even themselves They were going soft, losing hair on their heads, and sprouting new hair everywhere else. They worried that a missed period meant the beginning of menopause rather than an unwanted pregnancy. They lived in fear of the moment arriving when they could see, however distant, but certainly there, the end. before we are all horribly gone to seed, why shouldn’t we fuck our brains out one last time, Charmaine concluded.
Triburia is being compared to the novels of Tom Perrotta, and I think it’s a fair comparison. Perrotta has a knack for showing the pathology that lies beneath American suburban domestic life, and that same theme of the pathology of so-called respectability is here too. The real estate boom-and-bust is in the background with our mostly wealthy characters grumbling about decreased rent and property values along with the sense that it’s time to move on to greener pastures. Greenfeld has authored a number of non-fiction books (haven’t read any of ‘em) and also published some short stories.