Coming to New York: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
The days of hordes descending upon Ellis Island may be long over, but New York has never stopped being one of the most magnetic destinations for dreamers—be they writers, artists, foreigners in search of greater freedom and better opportunity or ruthless monsters driven by greed. The theme has wound its way into some of the greatest fiction, with characters from Russia, the UK, Nigeria or and America's own far reaches drawn to Gotham like moths to a candle. Sometimes they make it big; other times they go up in flames; always, they give us big entertainment. Here we've rounded up our favorites stories of heroes and heroines entering the fray of the Big Apple.
Louder than this year's cicadas—and likewise wound by a frenzied, single-minded pursuit—future financiers hurl into the city every summer. The narrator of Fitzgerald's classic novel, Nick Carraway, is one of these bond-business types who comes east to learn his way around Wall Street. At first, he's smitten: "I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night, and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye." But, eventually, as events in West Egg begin to sour his view of the American Dream, he picks up on a different, less luminous side of the city: “Poor young clerks who loitered in front of windows waiting until it was time for a solitary restaurant dinner—young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life."
For her apprenticeship at a magazine not unlike Condé Nast’s deceased Mademoiselle, young Esther Greenwood is compensated with parties, ballet tickets and—after her first meal at a fine-dining restaurant—food poisoning. She's "supposed to be having the time of [her] life," but the city performs its famous disappearing trick: "All the little successes I'd totted up so happily at college," she laments, "fizzled to nothing outside the slick marble and plate-glass fronts along Madison Avenue." Then, on her last night in Manhattan, she does what all New Yorkers must learn to do if they're to survive the city's sharp edges: She lets go. From the roof of her hotel, Esther gifts her wardrobe "to the night wind… to settle here, there, exactly where [she] would never know, in the dark heart of New York."
"To be poor in New York was humiliating, a little, but to be young—to be young was divine." This is the battle cry of Mark, Sam and Keith, a trio of writer friends eking out literary careers at the turn of the 21st century. They have stores of promise and dearths of cash, feel qualified to pronounce on Israel, Google themselves incessantly, date none or several women at once and try not to think too hard about their friends "busy becoming lawyers and getting married." They leave for New York for a while, but return to live on St. John’s, or 1st Avenue, because "life was here." Stubborn, hopeful, clever, pedigreed, idiotic, they're New Yorkers to the core.
Each time a neighborhood bar, coffee shop or video store (R.I.P.) shuts down due to skyrocketing rent, think of the door's final creak as the groan of Morris Bober, the down-on-his-luck but endlessly resilient protagonist of Bernard Malamud's "The Assistant." In Bober's mid-century Brooklyn, as in the Tsarist Russia of his youth, "all times were bad." Business at the grocery he owns falters as unbeatable competition, in the form "a new fancy delicatessen," opens shop across the street. And yet, Bober persists—and makes no moral comprises to get ahead—because "our life is hard enough. Why should we hurt somebody else? For everybody should be the best, not only for you or me."
Rachel Kushner's second novel captures of thrill and disorientation of being a young artist in New York through the story of the bold but impressionable Reno. The setting is the early 1970s and the neighborhood is SoHo, the raw heart of the city's art scene. Reno's New York is "so alive with people [her] age…that the energy of the young seeped out of the ground," and she figures it's "only a matter of time before [she's] part of something." Of course, not unlike narrators of New York who have come before her, she soon sees that the city's bright lights cast long shadows. For starters, there’s her apartment: bare walls, bare rooms, bare mattress. Then, there’s the waitress who recounts a different a childhood every time she sees her. Ah, if only that were the extent of it.
Though his accent is Old World, John Self grew up in Trenton, N.J., and retains the native’s right to trash-talk. And, when he comes to New York to direct a feature film, trash-talk is just about all he does. Broadway, he quips with characteristic rancor, "contrives to be just that little bit sh*ttier than the zones through which it bends." Though, in Self's opinion, money is sterilizing the city, "things still happen here. You step off the plane, look around, take a deep breath—and come to in your underpants." Cynical and megalomaniacal in equal measure, Self vacillates between seeing himself as one of many "pretty perfunctory Earthlings on the streets of New York" and one of the (loaded) lucky ones: "I am in the cab, going somewhere, directing things with money."
Finishing his psychiatry fellowship at Columbia Presbyterian, Julius seems like a very eligible bachelor. He watches bird migrations outside of his apartment. He publishes. He reads Barthes, St. Augustine and his patients’ books. He suavely chats with (and picks up) strangers. He articulates difficult things, like the fear of racism and anti-Semitism becoming “pre-rational.” Born in Nigeria, he successfully attempts to “develop a mind of winter” when the deathly season sets in: “the absence of cold when it ought to be cold, was something I now sensed as a sudden discomfort.” He thinks of “Mahler’s last years” while taking the N train uptown—but listen: What’s the faint rattling and screeching underneath this young scholar’s ruminative calm?
At 19, Josef Kavalier is squirreled out of occupied Prague in a golem’s coffin and arrives a penniless escape artist at his cousin Sam’s apartment on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. Across the river, in Manhattan, he hears a “humming sound everywhere…produced by Twenty-fifth Street itself, by a hundred sewing machines in a sweatshop overhead, exhaust grilles at the back of a warehouse, the trains rolling deep beneath the black surface of the street.” Awaiting Sam and Joe, aspiring comic-book artists, is a “brush against the diaphanous, dollar-colored hem of the Angel of New York.” And isn’t that the holy touch that makes New York’s subway-sidewalk-bike-lane jostle worth it?