Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
Jennifer Egan began the research for her latest book years ago. It was 2004 when she first learned of the significance of New York’s waterfront and the Brooklyn Naval Yard. The result of her years of research and interviews is a very compelling read titled Manhattan Beach.
The novel is in a way three different stories intertwined. The central story is Anna Kerrigan. She is both a secondary character and the catalyst for change in the stories of Eddie Kerrigan (her father) and Dexter Styles.
The Depression changed the fortunes of the Kerrigan family. Before the crash Eddie and his wife Agnes worked in theater and lived well with Anna and her disabled sister Lydia. Eddie was forced to take a job with an old friend as a bagman to support his family.
He took Anna with him when he could as no one caused trouble in front of a child. They formed a close bond that Anna believed was unbreakable until the day she accompanied him to see Dexter Styles. The meeting at Styles’ home wasn’t the normal errand she ran with her father but for a new job.
Anna didn’t know about the job but she knew instinctively that Eddie wanted her to lie about the day. Eddie began to worry about what he had exposed Anna to plus his new job took him to places a child couldn’t go. The errands ended and the bond broke. Eddie worked long hours and one day he didn’t come home. As days turned to weeks the family accepted he wasn’t coming back and life went on.
Anna is in college when Pearl Harbor is attacked and the U.S. joins the war. She gladly leaves college to work in the Naval Yard. She is patriotic and eager to do what she can for the war effort but longs for something more exciting than measuring small parts for ships. Though frowned upon Anna goes out each day at lunch to explore the shipyard and witness the different jobs being done. She discovers the divers.
With so many men fighting the war women are doing jobs traditionally done by men but diving isn’t one of them. The suit alone is a deterrent because of the weight. The dress or diving suit weighed 200 pounds with the shoes 35 pounds, then add the collar and helmet at 56 pounds and the belt at 84 pounds. With the suit on you had to be able to walk with all that weight and perform tasks as delicate as unraveling a knot while wearing the three-fingered gloves.
Anna knows nothing of the requirements but she is determined to try. Her life outside the Naval Yard revolves around the care of Lydia but in her limited free time she visits her first nightclub. The club belongs to Dexter Styles. She remembers him and introduces herself but doesn’t reveal her true identity. Styles may hold the key to her father’s disappearance.
Dexter’s story now becomes part of the narrative. The author not only did her homework on the waterfront and naval yard but on organized crime as well. Styles runs his own small criminal empire and he married into society. His relationship with his boss and his connections through his father-in-law make Dexter feel he is close to untouchable. But no one is untouchable.
Anna gets her chance to dive but tragedy at home has left her living alone. To escape her loneliness and to celebrate her new job as a diver Anna goes out and ends up at Dexter’s nightclub. She doesn’t see him but he finds her and what happens next changes the course of both their lives.
Anna does learn at least part of what happened to her father but not all of it. We now get Eddie’s story. Eddie was an astute, observant man and at his core moral. His jobs provided for his family and put him in a position to see things he couldn’t ignore. When one of his friends is murdered he makes a decision that changes all of their lives.
Egan’s writing style immerses you in the story but Eddie’s story was so compelling that it was as if I was reading another novel. I forgot about Anna and Dexter as Eddie’s life unfolded.
This is not a perfect novel. The switches in storyline from one character to another kills the momentum a little and she rushed to an end. Anna’s life is glossed over at the end when before it was rich with detail. But I’m being picky because the novel is well-done and an engrossing read.
The characters come alive in your mind and you can see the waterfront and hear the ocean. When I was a teen I read “Hannah Fowler”. I don’t recall much about the story but I’ve never forgotten the character. This novel is like that, the nuances of the story will fade but I’ll remember Anna Kerrigan.