It’s been a long seven years for the many fans of Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize winner A Visit from the Goon Squad. Many will be surprised that Egan’s latest novel, Manhattan Beach, marks her first foray into historical fiction, given her reputation for experimental storytelling, but fans won’t be disappointed. Sure, it’s a more straightforwardly told and traditional narrative, but still replete with all the nuanced and insightful storytelling we expect from a master storyteller.
Manhattan Beach starts in the years between the wars, America is in the midst of the Great Depression, and New York City is partially run by unions, corrupt police, and gangsters. Eddie Kerrigan is an Irish American taking what work he can on the Brooklyn docks and struggling to support his family, including daughter Anna and Anna’s beloved younger sister, the beautiful and severely disabled Lydia. People must do what they can to make ends meet and that isn’t always in legitimate business. As Eddie Kerrigan is drawn into the more lucrative ‘shadow’ world he comes into contact with slick gangster Dexter Styles, whose life straddles this world and the respectable polo-playing upper echelons of New York Society.
When Eddie disappears without a trace, Anna and her mother are left to survive without him and Anna buries the anger she feels toward her father for their abandonment. As the US is dragged into the Second World War after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour, Anna scrapes a living at the naval yard where women are working to keep the war effort going, in factories, as welders, and even as divers. Through physical and mental strength and perseverance Anna has to break through rigid prejudice to get her way and become one of the first female divers.
On a trip to a Manhattan nightclub with one of the naval yard girls, Anna comes into contact with her father’s former cohort Dexter Styles and finally must face what really happened to her father. Did he run out on them when life got too hard or was he murdered and thrown to the bottom of the harbour?
In Manhattan Beach, Egan transports us to the beating heart of the pre-war and war years of New York City, depicting the murky underworld that gripped America, from prohibition to the 1940s. Her characters are complicated and she brings out the intrinsic good of even those, such as Eddie Kerrigan and Dexter Styles, who are drawn – or pulled – to the dark side. It shows how war can sometimes bring out the best in people and how World War Two changed the destiny of a nation, especially for women. It’s a milieu not thoroughly explored in literature – the New York where hundreds of women, both married and single, valiantly took part in the war effort.
It’s also an exploration of the universal father-daughter bond, with the incisive portrayal of Anna and Eddie Kerrigan’s touching and evolving relationship, as well as the tender and complex relationship between Dexter Styles and his eldest child. It’s an immersive book about human flaws and poignant redemption.
Manhattan Beach could be on course to be an award winner already, like its predecessor; it’s already long-listed for the prestigious National Book Awards in the US.
Jennifer Egan is the author of A Visit From The Goon Squad, The Keep, Look at Me, The Invisible Circus, and the story collection Emerald City. Her stories have been published in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, GQ, Zoetrope, All-Story, and Ploughshares, and her non-fiction appears frequently in The New York Times Magazine. She lives with her husband and sons in Brooklyn.