Tag Archives: Manhattan

The Tower by Ken Bruen and Reed Farrel Coleman

Tower, a hard-boiled, stand-alone crime novel is the collaborative work of Irish author Ken Bruen and American writer Reed Farrel Coleman. Framed with a short prologue and a very brief afterword, the story is divided into two parts: one told by gangster, Nick and the other told by his best friend Todd. Nick is a low-grade criminal, the son of a former policeman, when he is introduced by Todd to “small-time racketeer” Boyle,  and the two friends become part of Boyle’s crew. Boyle is into “cards, hot goods, intimidation, muscle,” and although Boyle is violent and unpredictable, he appears to take a “shine” to Nick, offering him more work and better perks. At the same time, Todd seems to separate himself from Boyle, but perhaps there’s an ethnic basis to these loyalties. Todd is Jewish while Nick and Boyle are both Irish extraction. Boyle is third generation Irish, “stage Irish” according to Nick, who because he’s visited there a few times, sports a false brogue and thinks he’s the ‘real’ thing.  On the other hand, Boyle’s main thug, Griffin, from Belfast, is the real deal, and it’s rumoured he was a Provo. Boyle, who seems to think it’s all about presentation, is “an ambitious prick who had worked his way up the sewer pipe to the toilet and from the toilet to the gutter.” Boyle is prone to moments of unpredictable violence but sports a false gregarious, even generous veneer which is somewhat theatrically accompanied by bible quotes. Griffin, on the other hand, is impenetrable, shifty and psycho. They make a good pair. Biblical Boyle (as he’s called behind his back) would be easy to underestimate:

My life was crammed with Micks, my family and most of the guys I knew. Boyle was one of the most irritating. Third generation, he’d been to Ireland a few times and had more than once told me to get my arse over there, touch my roots. I assured him it was one of my goals but the only place I wanted to go was Miami. The warehouse had posters of Dublin and Galway, Galway with that Bay, and Boyle wasn’t above singing a few bars of that song, “If I ever go across the sea to Ireland” and he sang like a strangled crow. In his late fifties, he had that barroom tan, the bloated face from too much Jameson, the busted veins along his cheeks. Small eyes that darted like eels and it would be a big mistake to think the booze affected his attention. If anything, the drink seemed to work on him like speed for anyone else, got him cranked.

In spite of their ethnic differences, in many ways Todd and Nick have always been on the same path,  and problems begin when they split up. Todd goes off to do some work for Boyle in Boston, and while he’s gone, Nick, initially the more violent of the two friends, gains more and more favour with Boyle. He’s rewarded with a gold rolex, and then an apartment in Tribeca after persuading Boyle’s faithless girlfriend that it’s in the best interests of her health that she move out. Now.

towerThen Todd returns but he’s not the same; his new-found taste for violence stuns even Nick. Events spiral out of control with Todd seeking vengeance and Nick, snorting Cocaine every chance he gets, caught in a cobweb of conflicting desires and loyalties.

Boyle’s time was at hand. Nick and Todd’s as well. From the second they chose the life, they chose their deaths. I used to talk to men I guarded about this stuff. A lot of them were not so different than Todd and Nick, guys who, for whatever reason got swept up in the world of violence and easy money. Some were stone killers, Griffin prototypes. They were easier to understand. The guys like Todd and Nick, they never had much to say. It was as if they were at some destination, but vague on how they got there or why they had gone in the first place.

Tower, a tale of alliances, loyalties and revenge unfolds quite cleverly through its two narrators, and while we get a solid sense of just who Nick and Todd are, this is primarily a plot-driven tale. My copy has 172 pages and looking back over the plot, it’s easy to see that there’s very little fat here. Some of the events that occur are seen in overlap through the two different perspectives, and so some unanswered questions are explained by Todd’s version of events in part II. As a hard-boiled crime novel, this is a very dark, sharp, tight tale–bleak and doom-laden with scenes of horrendous violence, so the squeamish need not apply.

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Triburbia by Karl Taro Greenfeld

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.

Review copy

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Three Bedrooms in Manhattan by Georges Simenon

“Weren’t they starting from scratch anyway?”

Loneliness and despair are the core themes at the heart of the novella Three Bedrooms in Manhattan by Simenon. Francois Combe is a French actor who left Paris abruptly after his wife, a successful actress, left him for another actor half his age. He’s living alone in a dirty, untidy New York apartment. One evening, the routine and predictable sounds from the neighbours next door, send him out on the streets. He ends up in a bar, and there he meets a 33-year-old woman named Kay. Francois notices her immediately on the next bar stool, and “what he really liked about her were the signs of wear and tear.” She’s homeless and just as lonely and desperate as he is. After more than a few drinks, they check into a cheap hotel. This is the beginning of an affair that is based in mutual need. Both Francois and Kay need somebody–anybody–and it just so happens that they meet and connect.

The interesting thing about the story is the way in which the relationship is encapsulated within 150 plus pages. Francois and Kay immediately latch onto one another, and by the next day, they are already curiously dependant. Francois can’t bear to be parted from Kay, and she worries that he’ll never come back. Relationships always go through phases, and Francois and Kay’s relationship moves rapidly through each of these phases–the glow of the honeymoon period, the possessive phase, the disapproval of a friend–all the way to disillusion and moving apart towards self-protection.

On the unpleasant side, neither Francois nor Kay are interesting or nice people. They are overwhelming desperate, and this desperation oozes into all aspects of their relationship. Kay constantly plays the same old sad songs on the jukebox, and she “seemed to be seeking out the despair of others.” Francois treats Kay rather brutally at one point, and she just absorbs it. They quickly establish a routine together–they get up around noon, walk around the city, and drink at numerous bars along the way. This gets old, and caused me to feel a general lack of interest in the characters or the outcome. The two characters remain somewhat cold and remote in the middle of all this misguided passion. This is not my favourite Simenon.

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