Tales of Manhattan Then and Now

By Patrick McGrath

Bloomsbury. 243 pp. $16.95

Here we have three novellas, set around the War of Independence, the Civil War and the desperate morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The author, Patrick McGrath, is well known for his use of the "New Gothic" in literature and his professional knowledge of insanity (he grew up on the grounds of a London asylum where his father was medical superintendent and spent time himself working in a Canadian asylum), as well as his fondness for employing unreliable narrators. These three tales are told in the first person by characters so maimed, tweaked and jerked around by their experiences that we'd be fools to take them at their words. (Or not. Who knows?)

This seemingly little volume should become a legitimate part of the literature of Sept. 11, the hardy crop of novels and short stories that are springing up in an effort to explain what happened to our flagship city on that historic day. McGrath's first purpose -- if I read correctly -- is to issue a strong corrective to self-absorbed New Yorkers, who live exclusively in the here and now. Sept. 11 may or may not have changed the world as we know it -- that remains to be seen. But that morning's destruction was certainly not the first in the city, and perhaps not even its bloodiest.

"The Year of the Gibbet," the first novella, written in the hectic style of the early 19th century with italics sprinkled seemingly at random throughout, is told by a terrified man on July 4, 1832. He's alone in his garret, in the midst of a cholera epidemic that is ravaging the city. He believes, as most of his fellow citizens do, that this is the end of Manhattan. Too many ships have brought in too many dreadful diseases; the still-young metropolis has become nothing more than a charnel house.

This thought -- as he sits and waits for his inevitable and horribly lonely death -- causes him to remember a time 55 years before: 1777, when this same cursed island was conquered by the British, but not before a well-meaning American zealot had torched the southern part of the city: "Of Trinity Church all that remained were ruined walls. Smoking beams lay tumbled upon one another and in the churchyard the headstones were charred, many of them cracked and split or fallen over in pieces, leaving only a snagged fraction like the remnant of a rotted tooth." During that terrible time, the man's mother was a courier for the colonists -- a recklessly brave woman who he can only think was betrayed by his own (George Washingtonian) inability to tell a lie. And as a result of that moment, his life has been utterly destroyed.

Flash-forward to the 1850s. Far from being destroyed, Manhattan thrives. "Julius," the second novella, is told by a granddaughter in slavishly Jamesian tones. In fact, this is a story Henry James has already written, except that his "Washington Square" heiress, who was denied happiness by her relentlessly controlling father, has morphed now into a sweet-tempered son of a robber baron who won't let him marry an artist's model, who is -- unfortunately -- an Irish immigrant. As the awful old father plots to get rid of his son's fiancee, Jamesian karma has its way, and the sins are visited on everyone in this unfortunate, overextended family.

"Ground Zero," the third novella, and the reason for the other two, carries a predictable title, but the catastrophe of the airplanes and the twin towers is just background for another creepy, Manhattanesque story. The tale is recounted by a woman who tells us she's a psychiatrist, but as the story progresses, who can be sure? Her "patient" -- he seems to be her only one -- has been unable to commit to any woman because of all the various trauma in his childhood. The psychiatrist, who has been "working" with him for years, has been perfectly happy to let him stew in his sorrow, since she gets to see him regularly. On the face of it, she's more girlfriend than therapist. But then her patient meets a hooker who is haunted by the ghost of one of her former customers who died in the attacks of Sept. 11. In vain, and in the most embarrassing ways, the therapist strives to keep her patient's attention, gradually revealing herself as the crazy one, which can't be much of a surprise for cynics who have invested in long years of therapy. The psychiatrist, clinging desperately to her own definition of herself as a professional, is left as a deserted nutcase, just one more unbalanced woman in this heartless city, desperate for love.

People in America love to talk trash about Hollywood and Los Angeles (where I live). But from McGrath's point of view, if you want to find pure American insanity and examples of every deadly sin except sloth, New York is the place to look.

The American Dream is by definition a dream, a delusion, even if it's often idealistic and endearing. Beginning with all the lives of expired Native Americans, our country has been littered with discarded spouses, cheated business partners, swindled customers and political candidates who have been shoved out of the way by dirty tricks we can't even bear to think of. America is undeniably a great country, but it's left behind a fairly disconcerting trail of blood and tears and implacable ghosts. McGrath recognizes this and pays our American devils their due. For Manhattanites especially, this is required reading.

This Sunday in Book World

* Jonathan Yardley on John Berendt's evocative look at Venice, "The City of Falling Angels."

* Robert Kaplan's "Imperial Grunts" explores the new frontlines.

* Easy Rawlins is back in Walter Mosley's deft "Cinnamon Kiss."

* Paul Kennedy on James Patterson's splendid history of post-Watergate America.

* Annie Proulx on T.C. Boyle's taut "Tooth and Claw."