By Kevin Baker
HarperCollins. 676 pp. $26.95
Paradise Alley was the ironic name given to a nine-foot-wide passageway in an unusually malodorous, filthy, pig-infested, brutal section of New York City, a long time ago. It is also the title Kevin Baker has given to his historical novel about New York.
Baker makes no effort to cover the whole complicated history of the city, and I think that was a wise decision. There is just so much one can handle. Not counting a hundred or so digressions (Baker is a digression junkie), the entire novel is a leadup to and then the showcasing of an episode that must have been as traumatic for New Yorkers 140 years ago as Sept. 11 was last year.
To go back 140 years into the American past is to land right in the middle of the Civil War. To do it in New York is to land right in the middle of the draft riots. They lasted five days.
For the first time in American history, military service was made compulsory. Very few people liked the new draft, but it was especially unpopular in New York City. There were two main reasons. For one, the great potato famine had caused about one-sixth of the entire population of Ireland to emigrate to America (the alternative was starving to death, as hundreds of thousands did). The largest number of these newcomers stayed in New York. They had about as much interest in being marched off to fight in some place called Virginia as present-day New Yorkers would in being drafted to fight in Afghanistan.
Secondly, there was a provision in the new draft law that was blatantly unfair. You're an upper-class or middle-class American, and you don't want to go fight those rebels or like as not die of disease in a Confederate prison? Well, you don't have to. Come up with $300, and you can buy yourself an exemption. Let someone else die in a regiment from New York City, probably a young O'Connell or Ryan.
Around this central story of the draft riots and killings, Baker has written a very ambitious and very long novel. But there is, I think, a huge problem with the book. In fact there may be two. One is that the characters, almost without exception, are sticks. We get to see them act, and sometimes we get to hear them talk. Occasionally we get a first-class scene. But almost always there is the feeling that the author is pushing everybody around. One cares much less what happens to sticks than one does about what happens to creatures of flesh and blood.
The other problem is digressions -- and depending on your taste, they may not be a problem at all but an enrichment of the book's texture. In that case, the herds of wild pigs belong. So do the semi-feral goats over toward the Hudson. And so do the three Irish cows. Not that this touch of bovinity has any connection whatsoever with the draft riots that are presently going to erupt in New York. Their connection is with starvation back in the Old Country.
In the pertinent scene, Ruth Dove and her rather brutal lover, Dangerous Johnny Dolan, are making their slow way toward the Dublin waterfront, where they hope to catch a ship to New York. If they can stay alive long enough to get on board, that is.
It turns out they can. During the long, long walk to Dublin, they pass through a region where a few people actually have cattle. Through somebody's carelessness, a herd of three is temporarily left unguarded. Dangerous Johnny, who still has his knife, seizes the opportunity. He gets up to one of the three, and then "he cut[s] the animal swift and sharp, across the right hind leg." Then he puts his mouth to the wound and has a good drink. Next he claps his last bit of bread to the wound and makes a sort of edible bandaid. And then he makes a blood sandwich for Ruth.
That's typical detail in Paradise Alley. Almost anything you can think of, just so it's violent and perhaps a little repellent, can make it in. Great reading for vampires. Perhaps a little too violent for the rest of us. *
Noel Perrin is an emeritus professor of American literature and environmental studies at Dartmouth.