Ivy Pochoda’s novel Visitation Street comes to us with ringing endorsements from the likes of Dennis Lehane and Lionel Shriver – Lehane going so far as to cite Pochoda’s name alongside the likes of Richard Price, Alice Sebold and Junot Diaz – and a cursory examination of plot makes a strong case for the comparison with the first two at least. We find ourselves in Red Hook, New Jersey. This is the tale, at least in the beginning, of two teenage girls, Valerie and June, who take themselves off for a little bit of an adventure in the East River one night and come unstuck. If Sebold informs the opening narrative thrust, Price very much determines locale and context: this is a novel that takes its props from David Simon and The Wire. Very quickly we find ourselves in a roving company: Valerie, of course, but also Fadi, the Lebanese owner of a bodega who appears to give away more of his stock than he sells, Cree, a decent young man looking to rebuild his life following the murder of his father, and Jonathan, a music teacher, primarily, but there are others (Cree’s sister, Monique, a young woman discovering she has inherited her grandma’s ability to hear voices from beyond, Lil, a flakey bar keep who occasionally shacks up with Jonathan, and a graffiti artist called Rundown who we come to learn has a number of pivotal parts to play in the unfolding drama).
On paper, it all sounds intriguing. There is undoubtedly a keen political eye at work, and Pochoda’s heart is in the right place – we are here to see a world that may be unfamiliar to us and we are here to understand why people behave in the way that they do, how wrong turns can present themselves, what those wrong turns can do. And yet, for all of the activity in the book, the action remains curiously flat. I think this comes in part from the opening tragedy: we see the girls floating from a distance (at least two people are on hand to see them bobbing in the dark), we see them disappear out of sight, next day one of them is found by the shore, some time later we discover Valerie’s own take on things and then later still we discover more: for a novel to take a reader by the hand, I would argue, we need to be on the raft with the girls at the start and we need to understand what went on so that it informs everything that follows. Visitation Street is not a mystery novel, it’s a literary novel (an urban literary novel, perhaps that’s where the Junot Diaz comparison comes in) – but it’s a literary novel that lacks a powerful scene. What we hear, what we are told, is largely reported. Pochoda could learn a lot from a writer like Ian McEwan who, for all the faults many people enjoy levelling at him, knows how to write a powerful scene.
Because the novel doesn’t arrest, you find yourself staring around the scenes presented (the way you would if you found yourself caught at a party with an insufferable bore, scanning the crowd for someone – anyone! – who might enliven the evening) and doubting the veracity of what you’re being told. I caught myself asking ‘Is Visitation Street a truthful novel?’ Is this a truth Pochoda has herself seen on the streets? Or is it a truth Pochoda has concocted from driving by and glimpsing in, from watching The Wire perhaps and other shows like that, from reading other writers (Jonathan Lethem, say, or Michael Chabon – Motherless Brooklyn or, say, Telegraph Avenue feel like truer, peppier, better written versions of what Pochoda is trying to do here). I’m not even sure if that’s even a fair question to ask of a novel (even as I was asking myself I was asking myself if I should be asking myself). If you hold up every novel you read and ask of it, yes, but does it reach the greatest heights attainable by art – well, you’ll find yourself disappointed a lot. But then I found myself in this position because the novel wasn’t gripping me so it shares some of the responsibility.
For this reader, Visitation Street shows promise whilst not being entirely satisfying. We’ll certainly watch what Pochoda does in the future.
Any Cop?: If somewhat earnest, urban literary fare is your thing, you could do a lot worse than check out Visitation Street.