The newest book by Roger Rosenblatt recalls the author’s walks in New York City as a child and reveals his manner of walking and thinking in the world throughout a lifetime. As its title promises, “The Boy Detective” involves boyish detecting and is a tribute to the city where the author grew up. Delightful as these themes are, there is much more to engage and enchant the reader here. The book is rich with recollections and with the lush wanderings of memory and imagination. In combination they draw the reader into one of the most entertaining, thoughtful and deeply moving minds among nonfiction writers today.
To accompany Rosenblatt on a book-length walk through place and time is to go on a treasure hunt without a map. You don’t know where you’re going or what kind of treasure you seek, and you don’t know what may turn up along the way. Still, you can be absolutely sure you won’t be disappointed.
You are treated to memories from the author’s childhood, such as this one: “Once I willed a sequence of dreams in which I was an owl detective, both an owl and a detective. . . . I remember hailing a taxi and telling the driver to ‘Follow that car’. . . . As a largish owl I had some difficulty stuffing my feathers into the taxi.” You certainly will be introduced to New York City landmarks, as during a visit to the former home of Theodore Roosevelt in Gramercy Park, not far from where Rosenblatt grew up: “So quiet, the home of the wild man president, he of the Rough Riders and Mount Rushmore and the blank goggle eyes and the grillelike teeth.”
Sometimes it’s a walk on the wild side. At one point the author/detective moves into the mind of fellow writer and mystery lover Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote “The Mystery of Marie Roget” not long after the 1841 murder of Mary Rogers, a beautiful New York woman who worked in a tobacco shop on Lower Broadway. In Poe’s version, detective Auguste Dupin solves the murder. In “The Boy Detective,” for a couple of dizzying paragraphs, Poe himself confesses to the deed. “All right, I did it. I killed her. But it was an accident. Sort of. Sort of an accident. I didn’t mean to do it, but I did. That is, I did mean to do it, but I didn’t.”
Later we get to the Empire State Building on 34th Street, where King Kong desperately grips Fay Wray in his huge gorilla hand until he is fatally attacked by biplanes. As he falls, the great building itself speaks consolingly to the doomed ape: “You have lived long enough, King Kong. A good life. A big life. . . . If you must fall, fall from me.”
There is a walk in blinding snow, insanely detailed: “You understand. I had lost the formula. So I plowed into the blizzard wearing bandages covering my body and my face, my whole head, and the obvious garish wig and my outer-space sunglasses.”
Then we’re back on 15th Street between Second and Third avenues, where three people are angry, each for a different reason. Having shed bandages, wig and sunglasses, the writer speaks of their anger with the cadenced wisdom of a scholarly uncle on a Sunday stroll. He points out that there are drawbacks to indulging in anger and hatred: “All you have done by generating such weapons is to add to the vast hatred and anger of the world, which indirectly ends in the deaths of millions.” And on we go.
We walk right into the author’s death, sharing a view of his dead body with the coroner. The detective observes “a normally developed white male, measuring seventy inches in length and weighing 175 pounds.” There is a toxicology report, there are observed fractures, comments on lividity and on recent diet.
For a gentler look at death, we visit the Jewish cemetery on 11th Street between Fifth and Sixth. The place contains three dozen graves in a small, untidy piece of ground. Some of the stones are “leaning against the cemetery’s back wall, like wallflowers at a dance.” Here we walk slowly, knowing exactly where we are.
The reader serves as the author’s imaginary friend, someone he can walk with and speak to, often in detective language, “in case you’re interested, Pal.” He talks to his memoir students, too, offering them one of the book’s treasures and a most telling clue: “So what is the difference, students, between memory and dreams? Are they not the same, each the other?”
For a heartbreaking sentence or two the writer addresses his daughter Amy, whose death at 38 was a greater ocean than any waters he navigated in his earlier book, “Kayak Morning.” “Where do you walk now, my sweet girl?,” he asks. There are mysteries that even the best of detectives cannot solve.
The boy detective chases suspects and finds clues all over his city. The adult writer asks the question “How do you walk in the world?” and answers it partly with a line from Wallace Stevens — “I was the world in which I walked” — but mainly with this quiet, triumphant ambulation, a characteristically eloquent and multiply rewarding book.
THE BOY DETECTIVE
A New York Childhood
By Roger Rosenblatt
Ecco. 257 pp. $19.99