Thursday, April 21, 2005

Book: Empire Rising, by Thomas Kelly (2005)

Kelly’s first two books, PAYBACK and THE RACKETS, offered a rare working class view of contemporary New York City. He maintains that perspective in his first historical novel, which brims with roisterous energy. It’s a potboiler in the best sense of the word. (And if there isn’t one, there oughta be.)

It unfolds over the course of six months in 1930, as the Empire State Building is being erected. There’s a love triangle, of course, in which an immigrant steel worker battles a slick Tammany Hall man (“a human link between night and day”) for the love of a good woman. It’s the kind of book where the iron worker has a tortured loyalty to the Irish Republican Army, and the woman is a great beauty desired by every man she meets in spite of her tragic past. The half-hokey, half-mythic structure only adds to the enjoyment level.

It’s also the kind of book where anyone who was famous in 1930 pops in for a cameo. Hey, it’s Babe Ruth! Isn’t that Primo Carnera? Why, Governor Roosevelt! Again, that’s not a bad thing.

Kelly ably conveys the fierce pride that the Empire State’s construction crews took in their work, the sense that they were contributing to something that would long outlive them. It’s a feeling that seems to be in short supply these days.

After a recent episode of DEADWOOD, Rosemarie and I had a long talk about this subject. The show takes a lot out of her; as she said, “It’s hard to see what people, especially women, had to go through in those days.” I had to confess to some occasional jealousy for those hard lives. They may have been nasty, brutish and short, but there must also have been a feeling of accomplishment. In some small way, those pioneers were pushing America forward.

I felt the same way after watching the seafarers in MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD. As the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane said in his review, “If you died on board the Surprise, it would not be for want of having lived.”

Rosemarie says I’m romanticizing these eras. I have no doubt she’s right. She usually is. But I can’t shake the feeling that, at a time when the most common way of belonging to something larger than ourselves is voting on AMERICAN IDOL, the human race is longing for some great adventure to take possession of us again.