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Jonathan Yardley

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, March 20, 2005; Page BW02

METROPOLIS

By Elizabeth Gaffney

Random House. 461 pp. $24.95

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Elizabeth Gaffney seems to have read E.L. Doctorow and Caleb Carr with care. Like the former's Ragtime and the latter's The Alienist, her Metropolis is set in the distant, oddly magical world of Old New York, with its larger-than-life figures (P.T. Barnum, Evelyn Nesbit, Teddy Roosevelt), its celebrated structures and places (the Brooklyn Bridge, Madison Square Garden, Fifth Avenue) and its romantic (or so it seems in hindsight) underworld. Everything is viewed through an agreeably sepia haze, and at any moment one expects to hear the tinkle of a Scott Joplin rag.

Metropolis is the first novel by Gaffney, an editor for the Paris Review who appears, judging by the blurbs with which the novel is festooned, to be well-connected in literary circles. She writes reasonably well, though in a rather self-consciously jaunty fashion, and much to her credit she has resisted all the temptations of the autobiographical, coming-of-age first novel. The lives she has imagined are others', not her own, and she has researched New York in the post-Civil War period with care. If the reader is constantly aware of the machinery at work, grinding away to put the "period" in this period piece, Old New York really does have strong appeal, and in this novel it is often palpable.

Say it for Gaffney as well that Metropolis is big and ambitious, in sharp contrast to the puny variations on minimalism to which American literary writers have accustomed us in recent years. For my money a wealth of ambition can hide a multitude of literary sins -- viz., Theodore Dreiser -- which is just as well since Metropolis has both. If on the one hand it has period charm and interesting characters and plot, on the other hand it moves incredibly slowly and, more seriously, labors under a classic show-and-tell problem. Especially in its early chapters, which seem to last forever, Gaffney eschews dialogue, incident and character development in favor of description and exposition. The result is that too often the novel is static, and impatience is just about impossible to resist.

At its center is a young immigrant from Germany who goes by a number of names before finally settling on Frank Harris. A "queer blend of luck and misfortune [marks] his life," getting him into trouble on the one hand, rescuing him on the other. In Germany he was the son of a wealthy man who, after the death of Frank's mother, married the proverbial wicked stepmother. He was sent off to live on a farm with distant relatives before finally escaping to New York, which "had not exactly offered him the fresh start he sought, but then again, it kept helping him back up every time it battered him down." Of necessity, he develops determination and perseverance:

"And so he resolved to make the best of whatever came his way for as long as it lasted. He knew from his childhood what the high life could be like and how quickly it could disappear; he also knew destitution. He'd grown up in a monarchy and come to a democracy. He'd seen firsthand that both of them required an aristocracy as well as an underclass. He had been a member of both and hadn't much liked either. Above all, perhaps, he'd learned that class distinctions were more fluid than they seemed and tragedy befell the privileged just as often as the poor. On the ship over, for instance, the rich had died the same as the likes of him in steerage. But he had survived."

As the novel opens, he is mucking elephant stalls in P.T. Barnum's Museum on Broadway when a terrible fire (an actual historical event) breaks out. Though he is innocent of everything except being asleep in the tinderbox when the fire starts, he immediately becomes the chief suspect and the object of a police search. A guard at the museum known as the Undertaker -- his quite improbable real name is Luther Undertoe -- may well have been the arsonist but persuades the cops that Harris is their man, in the process becoming Harris's bête noire and implacable enemy.

Against his will, Harris is sucked into the city's underworld. He is strongly attracted to an Irish girl named Beatrice (with another peculiar surname: O'Gamhna) who masquerades as a seller of hot corn but is actually an accomplished pickpocket. She "could make herself an urchin one minute, then transform herself into a woman and stir up lust in a passerby, just by her posture," lust that renders men easy targets for her sneak attacks. She scarcely gives Harris the time of day, but he is enamored of her all the same and offers little resistance when she helps suck him into the Whyo gang of Brooklyn, a 19th-century New York version of Robin Hood and His Merry Men. She herself is a member of the Why Nots, "a girl gang [that] had eventually been formed within the gang, consisting mostly of sisters and girlfriends of the Whyos, but this was no ladies auxiliary."

Soon Harris finds himself working in the sewers, getting to know the underground city and accumulating a mental road map of it that eventually enables the Whyos to pull off a spectacular heist, stealing from the Tammany crowd "money that rightfully belongs to the people of this city," in the words of Johnny Dolan, the Whyo leader who talks a good Robin Hood game but keeps most of the dough for himself. Further excitement ensues, in time provoking Harris to begin a new life in legitimate society, working as a laborer in the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, "just the kind of thing he dreamed of working on." Through his work there he establishes a real connection to the city, becomes a real New Yorker rather than just another immigrant, and thus his story is -- as Gaffney clearly intends it to be -- a very American one.

Meantime there is still Beatrice. Harris tries to make connections with other women, but his desire for her increases every time he sees her, even after she is forced into Dolan's bed as the Whyos' No. 1 girl. She too stands in need of legitimizing and Americanizing, processes that are accomplished through a somewhat improbable but by no means unappealing chain of events. The city, we are told at the end, "made its citizens free: free to defy expectation, free to spit at fate, free to work the chaos in the system, free to fail."

All of which makes for mildly pleasant if excessively time-consuming reading, but none of which adds up to as much as Gaffney clearly means it to. Hard though she works -- again, the machinery is always visible as it heaves away -- she's essentially dealing in facile nostalgia, playing on our longing for a New York (and an America) that we are given to romanticizing and fictionalizing. Her vision of American crime and corruption is clouded by her determination to look on the sunny side, with the result that Metropolis is soft at its core.

If you want to read about late-19th- and early-20th-century New York -- and apparently many people do -- there's no reason to see it through the gauzy film of nostalgia. Books written at the time get across its corruption, energy and glamour far more successfully than Metropolis. Important parts of Dreiser's Sister Carrie and his Frank Cowperwood trilogy (The Financier, The Titan, The Stoic) are set in New York, and the novels that William Dean Howells wrote after moving there in the late 1880s -- most notably A Hazard of New Fortunes and The Quality of Mercy -- depict the city at that time with authority. Elizabeth Gaffney gets full credit for an honorable effort, but Metropolis too often is a snooze. •

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.


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