"The World of Tomorrow," the affable debut novel by Brendan Mathews, begins neither here nor there. All is in transition. It's 1939, World War II is imminent, and we join the story aboard the MV Britannic en route from the Old World to the New. In the first-class dining room, Sir Angus MacFarquhar, "a Scottish Mr. Darcy," is busy charming a table of wealthy Americans with his witty repartee. Angus's real name is Francis Dempsey, however, and he is neither an aristocrat nor even a Scotsman; he is an impetuous Irish jailbird with a bagful of cash swiped from the Irish Republican Army.
The possibility of dramatic transformation amid historical ferment is at the heart of "The World of Tomorrow," a fat novel stuffed with well-drawn characters grappling with different versions of themselves. For Francis, a purveyor of illegal risqué books, living a double life seems like a surefire method of social advancement. But for his shellshocked younger brother, Michael, a former seminarian, the rupture in his self-conception is far more violent. Michael has been rendered deaf and dumb by the same accidental explosion that left several IRA bomb makers dead and their money up for grabs. For him, life is divided into Before and After, and the schism in his identity is so acute that his mind conjures up a companion for him to "speak" with — an aloof white-haired gent who turns out to be the recently deceased Irish poet W.B. Yeats. The scenes of bickering between Michael and Yeats provide some of the book's most pleasurable moments.
As Francis and Michael take up residence in the Plaza Hotel and reunite with their estranged brother, Martin, a jazz musician, the brothers encounter a range of other characters who are also confronting twinned opposites of themselves. Lilly Bloch, a Jewish street photographer, is torn between pursuing her art as a single woman in America and returning to Nazi-occupied Prague, where her lover awaits her. Tom Cronin, a peaceable Upstate farmer, finds himself slipping back into his old role as a hit man for one last job: extinguishing Francis Dempsey.
Mathews is an able prose stylist, and breathing life into so many diverse characters is no mean feat. But the book, like the men and women who populate its pages, is riven by conflicting identities. For all the craft Mathews lavishes on these intricate backstories, the sensational plot that binds the characters together — a tale of gangsters, "One Last Score" and a scheme to murder a world leader — feels like a somewhat facile screen story grafted onto a literary novel. Indeed, Mathews mentions the movies repeatedly, which shakes the reader out of whatever realism has been generated and casts a spotlight on the constructedness of his narrative. The novel's pulpy action climax at the World's Fair, meanwhile, is unconvincing, as its outcome relies on the credulity-straining gullibility of security officials.
If the period and milieu of "The World of Tomorrow" feel familiar, well, that's because they are. Setting a debut novel in 1939 New York and naming it after the theme of the World's Fair is either a bold or derivative act, given the long shadow cast by E.L. Doctorow, the colossus of New York historical fiction. In 1985, Doctorow published "World's Fair," an evocative best-selling novel in which the same 1939 expo figures prominently.
But the two books approach 1939 Gotham in different ways. Doctorow, a Bronx native, wrote a tender, first-person story that reads as deeply felt memoir. "World's Fair" achieves remarkable intimacy by presenting New York through the limited but expanding perspective of a child discovering himself and his city. The visuals are tight shots: close observations of the "strange marks" — swastikas — chalked on the garage doors of the Jewish protagonist's Bronx home, or of the building material from which that house was built — "red brick, which I knew was essential from the tale of the three little pigs."
Mathews, by contrast, opts for a panoramic lens, taking in great swaths of the city and a sprawling cast of characters. Paradoxically, Doctorow's choice to go small made for a bigger book, while Mathews's broad scope diminishes his story's intimacy and the reader's emotional engagement.
Still, Mathews has a flair for bringing street scenes to life, and his hopscotching narrative — from a Harlem jazz joint to a Bowery art studio to a Fifth Avenue palace — makes for an enjoyable tour of a vanished city. "The World of Tomorrow" is an appealing if uneven debut by a promising writer.
John Freeman Gill is the author, most recently, of the novel "The Gargoyle Hunters."
By Brendan Mathews
Little, Brown. 552 pp. $28