Welcome to Kevin Baker's New York. By 1863 the great metropolis had grown into a cruelly concentrated reflection of the greater nation, offering countless lives the tantalizing prospect of a lift from danger to hope, squalor to prosperity, and slavery to freedom. But 1863 was a singular time in the city's life, as in the country's, a time when the fragile fabric of civilization fell victim to a reckless, violent drive for freedom and survival.
It's evident that Kevin Baker has a complicated relationship with New York. His main characters, by turns noble, desperate,
resourceful, feckless, and downright evil, all share a seminal drive for survival that propel them through impossible traumas and betrayals. From Ruth, the Irish peasant girl who runs from starvation in her homeland and washes up on American shores, to her frightening co-hort and erstwhile mate Dangerous Johnny Dolan, to her great love the ex-slave Billy Dove, her sister-inlaw Deirdre, and the cynical journalist Herbert Willis Robinson, each soul has a relationship with the city that either saves or destroys. And in New York, survival is not always the province of the good.
Yet through this scrim of ruthlessness the author's affection for the city still shines through. His style of writing, though often subdued and painful, somehow gives voice to the intense possibility of the place. The crucible for his characters' lives, the draft riots of 1863, crack New York wide open and unleash a torrent of horrific violence. Yet by novel's end, despite some of the tragic and unresolved circumstances of the main characters, there's a sense of purging and redemption. The war, the riots, and all the hardships that came before all teach something about the need to strive for good.
Historically Baker seems on firm ground with his subject matter, though a lay person might wonder about the author's take on race and repression. In particular, to an uninformed mind the development of the relationship between Billy Dove, the ex-slave, and Ruth, the Irish refugee with a scary and violent boyfriend, seems florid and far-fetched, a bit like "Mandingo" written as Harlequin romance. During these passages Baker loses control, falling back on a style less assured and honest than that displayed througout the rest of the book. It's an uncomfortable passage to read--a little embarassing, like a wrong note passed off as a right one in an otherwise flawless concerto.
Some of the book's peripheral stories (i.e. those outside the city's vise) are gripping. Ruth's almost random flight from her starving family's home, her journey through the hell of Ireland's starving countryside, the harrowing journey across the Atlantic in a typhus infested ship with the psychotic, near dead Johnny Dolan--these are some of the most powerful passages in the whole work. This reader has never come in such intimate contact with the carnage and horror of that time. Billy Dove's escape up the East Coast on a makeshift sailboat, pursued by slave traders and sharks, also show Baker at his page-turning best.
This book is a labor of love, and love is a complicated thing. Baker brings to it effective writerly instincts, a strong sense of character, and an clear desire to make history live. If it's a long book, it needs to be so. Baker has much to say, and he says it well, leaving the reader enriched, informed, and thoroughly entertained.