Jennifer Egan’s fourth novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, put her firmly on the map (she herself says as much in a recent New York Times book review podcast) – and it may be that those fans she picked up with that book will regard Manhattan Beach as something of a departure again, in that it’s a relatively straightforward historical novel set, for the most part, during WWII. Any readers who have been with Egan since before …Goon Squad, or who checked out her back catalogue on the back of …Goon Squad, however, will know she is a writer who likes to change things up each time she sits down to write. And so if you travel back pre-…Goon Squad, you’ll find gothic (The Keep), Manhattan fashionistas (Look at Me) and 70s political activism (The Invisible Circus).
With Manhattan Beach, we get a trio of stories told, in time, by a trio of narrators: Anna Kerrigan, a young woman earning her crust measuring shells in a munitions factory with dreams of being a diver to help the war effort; her father, Eddie, a sort of bagman (in that he transfers envelopes of money from one savvy individual to another and doesn’t ask too many questions) with ambitions to do better, for his own sake and for his family; and we have Dexter Styles, a smooth, club-owning, almost legitimate gangster sort. The link that ties each strand together is the disappearance of Eddie, shortly after he starts working for Styles. Anna grows up with the unresolved mystery overshadowing her daily life, her desire to be a diver possibly informed by her need for answers.
“Here was the mystery that seemed now to have been flashing coded signals at Anna from behind every Agatha Christie and Rex Stout and Raymond Chandler she’d read. Becoming aware of this deeper story made it burn through the allegorical surface of whatever plot she was reading until she found herself not reading at all, but holding the book and remembering. Puzzling.”
Arguably, each strand of the book could happily form the basis of an entire novel in its own right: noirish gangster with Styles (and Egan is an arch stylist, able to both emulate and satirise the pulpy noir these characters would have grown up with, the James Cagneys, Edward G Robinsons, George Rafts and Pat O’Briens),
“”With all due respect,” the Negro said, “bodies can’t just disappear.”
“Ah, but they can,” Dexter said. “They do. You’re in a different world now, my friend. It may look like the one you know, may smell like it, sound like it, but what goes on here doesn’t carry over. When you wake up tomorrow, none of this will have happened.”
wartime workaday (Annie is tough, as you’d expect, and her ambitions to be a diver form the basis of an unusual, yet strenuously believable, tale)
“”Don’t let ’em fill your head with that crud. They think you’ll believe anything because you’re a girl. They’ve no intention of letting you dive, by the way.”
and, perhaps surprisingly, rollicking adventure on the high seas (where we learn what happened to Eddie).
“At that same moment an explosion shook the ship. Hatches blew open, and overhead booms crashed onto the deck. The Elizabeth Seaman shuddered, and her stack disgorged a ball of flame whose orange blaze illuminated everyone on the decks and then floated, crackling like a giant dissolving sun, over the sea.”
For the most part, Egan keeps a firm hand on the tiller (the rare occasions where she places her thumb too heavily on the scales stick out like broken bones:
“…men hurried to their gun stations in their Mae Wests, as life vests were affectionately known.”).
And at the heart of the novel, the mystery thrums, “a pressure at her breastbone like a dark egg, its contents horror and revulsion.” As you’d expect, the stories twine one about the other, characters leaving their own worlds to enter others that loiter on the fringes of their own, unfamiliar – and so Anna is taken to a nightclub owned by Dexter, Dexter accompanies Anna on a dive, Eddie – well saying too much about Eddie takes us deeply into spoiler territory so we’ll say no more about that. What we will say is that whilst Manhattan Beach is quite different from A Visit from the Goon Squad (and The Keep before that), it is a thoroughly enjoyable read, as pacy as a thriller, as clever and literate as the biggest prize-winner of the year and encouragement, for those people who have only dabbled with …Goon Squad to date, that Egan is a writer whose books are all worth reading.
Any Cop?: As old-fashioned as it might be to say it, Manhattan Beach is a yarn, a page-turner, a good read, one of those kinds of books you curl up with and dive into, as the world falls away around you. Worthy of a big thumb’s up from us.