When I first moved to Brooklyn in the late eighties, it was still recognizably the end days of the era later given voice in Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. People just out of college did not yet run many neighborhoods as they seem to now; the newcomer was supposed to fit in, not transform. People in Manhattan smiled slightly whenever you said you lived here, and cabs often refused to cross the bridge to bring you home. When I lived in Carroll Gardens, the real policing was done by old Italian women who sat on stoops all night in good weather. (Mornings, the lady who owned the brownstone across the street would chat up my landlady about a suspicious guest of mine seen the previous day.)
The text for understanding Brooklyn’s lost standing in the world then, for learning the sources of its diminishment and pain, was still Roger Kahn’s gorgeous memoir, The Boys of Summer, which told the story of his growing up here to cover the Brooklyn Dodgers and then the collapse of everything that their decampment to California symbolized. “For all the outsiders’ jokes,” Kahn remembered, “middle-brow Brooklyn was reasonably sure of its cosmic place, and safe.”
Kahn’s Depression-era Brooklyn had been local but proud; Lethem’’s was tough but also a little put upon. Lethem grew up largely during the Dodger mourning period after 1958. Before the team left, a replacement ballpark for the Dodgers had been proposed and then abandoned near Atlantic Terminal, and in his coming-of-age novel, The Fortress of Solitude, Lethem characterized this site as a “region of lack…a sort of brick-dotted outline tracing a phantom limb.”
But of all the Brooklyn books I like, my favorite is one that does not exist on its own: It’s buried in a much larger novel about World War II and the death camps. The first line of William Styron’s Sophie’’s Choice, describing New York just after the War, also explains the reason so many creative young people moved here (and transformed much of the place) over the past decade, “In those days cheap apartments were almost impossible to find in Manhattan, so I had to move to Brooklyn.” The onslaught of hipsters, writers, guitar players, web designers and cycling zealots into former factory neighborhoods since the mid-nineties follows from that same statement. Manhattan filled up and priced us out, and so we came.
In the time of Styron’s novel, a person could still live a near-flophouse existence in parts of the Village, but even cheaper was Flatbush, where Styron’s hero, Stingo, moves in 1947, and where he encounters Sophie, a camp survivor, as the real Styron met a similar neighbor. The book’s first 131 pages, about life as an editorial grunt and making friends in a Brooklyn boardinghouse, make a fine short novel; on the beach at Coney Island with a gloomy bunch who discuss their own psychoanalysis (“picking at their own scabs,” says Sophie) or picnic by the lake at Prospect Park, where “a sextet of large, rather pugnacious-looking swans coasted by like gangsters into the reeds.” After the appearance of Auschwitz in dialogue on page 144, the book becomes something else.
My family first moved from the suburbs to the West Side when I was a 16, but I handled the change by likening our pinkish-red apartment building to the building Stingo calls the Pink Palace in Sophie’s Choice. Six years later, the book came to my imaginative aid again, ennobling my own first editorial job as I lugged forlorn blue manuscript boxes on the subway to my Brooklyn apartment, where I snuffed them out with acid reviewer’s notes to my boss, just as Stingo had done, “forced to plow my way daily through fiction and non-fiction of the humblest possible quality—coffee-stained and thumb-smeared stacks of Hammerhill Bond whose used, ravaged appearance proclaimed at once their author’s (or agent’s) terrible desperation…” My third Brooklyn apartment was a rental studio on Pierrepont Street, which has a lot of genuine history associated with it but to me was also familiar as the mythical address of Stingo’s flirty torturer, the dirty-talking “tease” Leslie Lapidus, with whom he wrestles unsuccessfully on the family couch. Every publishing job that didn’t work out, any stretch of datelessness, could be elegantly justified by ‘‘look how it panned out for Stingo/Styron,’’ a composite man who’d held only one office job (at MacMillan) for five months of his life.
Several years back, Scribner’s, the publisher of Don DeLillo’s Underworld, put out a small edition of the first 90 pages, which beautifully render the events of the day in October, 1951, when Bobby Thomson of the New York Giants ended the Dodgers’ season with an extra playoff game home run, and when Americans learned the equally stunning news of a Soviet atomic bomb test. Underworld is a flawed masterpiece, but this smaller section, titled Pafko at the Wall, is a perfect little book. So would be the first 130 or so pages of Sophie’s Choice, call it Stingo in Flatbush or something, if published as its own Brooklyn novel. It wouldn’t take up much space on the shelf, but it encompass plenty of the landscape of the borough.
(Photo from Sophie’s Choice via Fanpop.com)