Manhattan Beach: A Novel by Jennifer Egan (New York: Scribner, 2017. 448 pp)
Jennifer Egan is the author of five previous books of fiction: A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award; The Keep; the story collection Emerald City; Look at Me, a National Book Award finalist; and The Invisible Circus. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, Granta, McSweeney’s, and The New York Times Magazine.
A Crisp Morning in the San Juans
Life’s verification exists in the vignettes we embed in our unconsciousness. Our senses capture the material world and etch these memories into our brains like a Dürer woodcut.
Of the many etchings catalogued in my life experiences to date, some of the most serene are filed under my Orcas-Island-cabin memories.
The cabin, home to myriad family memories from Thanksgiving and Christmas to summer celebrations of Independence, overlooks the Strait of Georgia. A deck wrapped around the cabin providing a panorama. To the northeast, Mount Baker sits majestically, snowcapped in any season. Due north, the flickering lights of the Washington-British Columbia border refract just barely to the human eye. Northwest, smaller islands in the San Juan archipelago shroud Vancouver from eye sight.
The placid water, coupled with crisp mornings, operated as a panacea for the worried mind. To this day, nothing feels quite as therapeutic as a quiet morning observing the water, nature the only soundtrack. Even better, the mornings where a solitary fishing vessel or a container ship leaving Bellingham navigating the water offers a clear focus for this meditative state.
While reading Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach, these memories flood my consciousness. Egan, while crafting a dense historical narrative, offers her most proactive prose for the experiences of ocean observation, much like my family on the Orcas Island cabin.
Exploring Lives on the Home Front
Structurally, Manhattan Beach weaves the lives of three characters into a complicated mess set against a backdrop of the “home front” during World War II.
Anna Kerrigan, by and large the protagonist, functions as a Rosie the Riveter archetype. With her father having left the family years before, Anna provides for her mother and her disabled sister. The war in full swing, Anna works at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, doing whatever she can to feel like she’s making a difference.
“Soon it came to be known that the parts they were inspecting were for the battleship Missouri, whose keel had been laid almost a year before Pearl Harbor in Dry Dock 4. Later, the Missouri’s hull had been floated across Wallabout Bay to the building ways: vast iron enclosures whose zigzagging catwalks evoked the Coney Island Cyclone. Knowing that the parts she was inspecting would be adjoined to the most modern battleship every built had indeed brought some additional zest to the work for Anna. But not enough” (48).
And yet, Anna wants more. Having observed the dive team during lunch, Anna quickly realizes there’s nothing more she wants than becoming the first female diver.
“As Anna returned their cutlery to the canteen, she felt a seismic rearrangement within herself. It was clear to her now she had always wanted to be a diver, to walk along the bottom of the sea. But this certainty was fraught with worry that she would be denied” (63).
Can’t Have New York without the Mob
Meanwhile, Anna befriends Dexter Styles, a mobster turning cleaner and cleaner, but still dirty enough. A chance encounter sets the stage for Anna coaxing Dexter into taking her sister to see the ocean near his house on Manhattan Beach.
But beneath this request, Anna wants to know more about her father’s disappearance, something to which she believes Dexter contributed.
And finally, Egan outlines the complicated father figure in Eddie Kerrigan, a man willing to ride at the edge of the law if it meant providing for his family in a better way.
Ultimately, I’d argue about half of Egan’s intended narrative and character development works. The diving elements, World War II home front, and anything associated with Anna feels fully developed and lived in. In Manhattan Beach, Egan paints a picture of the people on the sidelines during World War II.
“The war had shaken people loose. These isolated people in Grant’s had been shaken loose. And now she, too, had been shaken loose. She sensed how easily she might slide into a cranny of the dimmed-out city and vanish. The possibility touched her physically, like the faint coaxing suction of an undertow. It frightened her, and she hurried toward the subway entrance” (185).
A Little Too Much Boardwalk Empire
Dexter and Eddie, however, misses the mark in comparison. While Dexter feels like a Boardwalk Empire character, his motivations and the ways in which his entanglements with Eddie Kerrigan play out don’t make much sense. Egan tells the reader that this relationship was important and that something major happened, but the reader (at least this reader), wasn’t able to connect the dots. I have an idea about what happened (won’t say more for spoiler purposes), but it could’ve been better outlined. But we do know something is up. Dexter says so.
“There had been one mistake: Ed Kerrigan, Dexter’s sole misjudgment in twenty-seven years of employment. People had gotten hurt, as the parlance went. But in the end, the trouble had brought down a rival and left Mr. Q. unscathed. This felicitous outcome was surely what had prompted Mr. Q. to declare three years ago, in his primordial hush, ‘It’s forgotten. We won’t speak of it again.’ Afterward, in the privacy of his automobile, Dexter had wept with relief” (196).
It’s up to you to connect the rest of the dots.
And yet, Manhattan Beach is an enjoyable read, mostly due to Egan’s powerful prose that brings this historical setting to life. When Egan describes Manhattan Beach with the Atlantic waves crashing and a minesweeper trawling the waters, my vision immediately splices my Orcas Island memories to this scene and I perceive the serenity of this milieu. Such evocative prose requires a talented hand and Jennifer Egan has it. Manhattan Beach isn’t her high-water mark but it is required reading nonetheless.
Verdict: 3.5 out of 5