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Sunday, April 21, 2013

#14 The overblown "Gods of Gotham"

You think 2013 is a happening year? Check out 1845. Now that was a year with a lot going on.

The fire of 1845
In 1845 James K. Polk was inaugurated as the 11th president of the United States. The nation’s first baseball team, the New York Knickerbockers (ancestors of today’s Yankees) was organized. The great potato famine sent Irish immigrants flooding onto the streets of New York. Florida became the 27th state (I didn’t say it was all good things going on). A fire in New York City, still a village of wooden houses and dirt roads, destroyed 1,000 homes and killed more than 30 people. And New York City’s first professional police department was formed.

All of these things (minus Polk and the baseball-playing New York Knicks) figure into
So mediocre!
Lindsay Faye’s second novel, The Gods of Gotham. Compared—right on the cover, no less—to Gangs of New York and The Alienist, and sporting an endorsement from the Alienist author Caleb Carr, the novel stabs at Alienist territory, but doesn’t come close to the richness of that brilliant novel. It does cover lots of the same terrain: a serial killer, vivid period details, a twisty plot, the mean streets of nineteenth century New York, and early methods of policing and forensics.

So good!
I love The Alienist. It’s one of my favorite novels. And I like Gangs of New York, especially every second Daniel Day-Lewis is on screen. Plus, I’m a total sucker for anything old-New-York. From Edith Wharton to the time travel novels of Jack Finney, if you set it in New York of long ago, I’m there.

Despite all the hype—or maybe, a little bit, because of it (heightened expectations, anyone?)—I didn’t fall for The Gods of Gotham. The charming-enough narrator is a bartender-turned-copper star (latter-day slang for police) named Timothy Wilde. The plot—figuring out who is killing the dozens of bodies that have turned up in the forest (yes, forest!)north of West 23rd Street—is interesting enough. There’s a love story, plenty of action, and dozens of colorful characters, from a driven doctor to an evil madam to an army of play-acting newsboys.

But it doesn't add up to enough, at least not for me. Some of that may be Faye’s over-writing, which drove me to distraction. Nothing ever just happens, no one ever just speaks. People breathe, murmer, command, suggest, inquire, announce, object, mutter, muse, challenge, and affirm—and that’s just in the space of two or three pages. Eyes “slide” and “shift skittishly,” they “lose their bearings.” Lips tremble “like the wings of a moth.” Jaws “angle quizzically.” Shoulders tilt, chins are pulled up, lips convulse. Things “come untethered inside,” which sounds scary. Are these people contortionists? Do they have Tourettes? A shrug “has all the weight of a beautifully penned argument.” How does someone shrug that way? Even someone screaming for help in a fire has a “low, smooth voice” and “sharply defined lips.” Who stops to notice things like this when half a city is burning down?

The emotional content of the novel is equally murky. Our narrator Timothy passionately hates his older brother Valentine, but it’s not clear why, since he tells us from the beginning that his brother raised him after they were orphaned (in a fire, of course) when Timothy was 10. And he hates Valentine in a peevish, childish way that makes us doubt his feelings, and his opinions on other matters as well. He is in love with the charitable daughter of the local Reverend, but it mainly seems to be because she has an unruly curl that he obsesses over, and she always answers a question with a question—a pretty darn annoying habit, if you ask me.

The descriptions of New York of the time are vivid, and made me realize that despite my romantic notions of long-ago, New York in 1845 was pretty much a cesspool. Filth everywhere, garbage in the streets, a level of poverty that makes today’s poor look like royalty, rampant corruption, intense and often violent hatred between races and religions, rampant and untreatable disease, child whores, a volunteer fire department that can’t possibly keep up, and a newly-formed police force that doesn’t exactly know what it’s doing. So much for time travel. I’ll stick to the twenty-first century, thanks.

See how cute he is as a cop?
Despite all that, I wouldn’t not recommend Gods (how’s that for a well-crafted sentence?). I think readers with more patience for a florid writing style, a fondness for the time period, and respect for a decent mystery might like it very much. And, if they do, there’s a sequel coming. I think, however, that I’ll wait for the inevitable movie. This might be one of the rare books (The Godfather anyone?) that benefits from having a good story cleaved from its overblown verbiage. With maybe Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Timothy (he mentions repeatedly how slight he is) and Ryan Gosling as his charismatic, powerful, troubled older brother Valentine. Throw in Amanda Seyfried as the love interest with the wayward curl and I’ll buy a ticket tomorrow.

See how cute he is as anything?

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