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Novels about Manhattan childhoods: 'The Martin Chronicles' by John Fried, 'The Falconer' by Dana Czapnik

"The Falconer" by Dana Czapnik (Atria, January 2019) Photo Credit: Atria Books

Call it arrested development, but for me there can never be too many Manhattan coming-of-age stories, whether fiction or memoir. Since J.D. Salinger kicked things off in 1951, contributions to the genre have been as diverse as Louise Fitzhugh's “Harriet the Spy,” Patti Smith's “Just Kids,” James McBride's “The Color of Water,” Stephanie Danler's “Sweetbitter” — and now, two new kids on the block.

“The Martin Chronicles” by John Fried (Grand Central, 259 pp., $26) is a novel-in-stories set in 1980s Manhattan, taking Martin Kelso from age 11 through college applications. It gets its name from Martin's summer reading for ninth grade, selected due to a misreading of Ray Bradbury's sci-fi title. We find him trying futilely to get past the first sentence of “The Martian Chronicles” in a story about a road trip taken with his mother, aunt and older cousin Evie, whom they're delivering to college.

"I never suspected kissing my cousin would be part of the trip," says Martin, but Evie assures him the kiss won't mean anything — "like a scrimmage before the real game," she says, then slips her tongue between his teeth. Over the course of Martin's childhood, Evie goes from being a playmate to a tormentor to an instigator, and through it all, an icon of female mystery. On this occasion, she bullies Martin not only into tonsil hockey but into attempting an aerial ropes course — and as with all the Evie-related incidents in the book, it does not turn out well.

The arc of the stories takes Martin and his pals through their first muggings, first beers, first jobs and more. In "Ghosts," a standout, Martin's grandmother has a stroke and starts hallucinating his dead grandfather, while Martin has a delusional romance of his own. A popular girl from the East Side (Martin always gets into trouble on the East Side), needs the name of a boy she can tell her ex she's dating. "We figured it would be better if it was someone no one knew," her emissary explains. The complications of this ruse play out at a boozy party on Park Avenue, in the grandmother's hospital room, at track practice in Central Park. Martin is a sweet boy at heart, but when faced with a choice, he always does the wrong thing — which gives the stories an edge and makes room for the mood of gentle humor to accommodate a tragic turn.

Fast-forward to 1993, and “The Falconer” by Dana Czapnik (Atria, 278 pp., $25) introduces 17-year-old Lucy Adler, a basketball phenom and equally extraordinary observer of the world around her — the book is filled with highly caffeinated badass riffs on Manhattan's scenery and soul, on feminism and art, on Lucy's generation, and on basketball itself. Lucy plays for the girls' varsity at Pendleton Academy, where she has been the leading scorer in the league for two years.

Lucy is sick with lust for her pickup partner, a 6-foot-3 nihilist philosopher with thick blond hair tucked behind his ears. "Percy wants to be poor. Because poor is real. And noble. That's how it is in New York. All the rich kids want to be poor, and all the poor kids want to be rich, and the kids in the middle watch it all play out and volunteer in soup kitchens and buy clothes in thrift shops and develop opinions." Lucy lives for the intense physical contact of ballgames with Percy and dies inside every time she has to watch him with his latest babe. "Sarah's arm is resting on Percy's waist. I have to lie down on the roof and look at the sky so that my longing doesn't overpower me." Lucy's simmering sexuality, her reaction to the male bodies around her, is never off the page for long. After all the books we've read about horny, frustrated adolescent boys, it's nice to get a different perspective.

Like Martin in his “Chronicles,” Lucy has an older cousin who is key to her understanding of the world — here a feminist painter who lives in a loft. "We're the first women since primordial sludge morphed into single-celled organisms who can really control our own fate," And so, Valerie tells her, using an unprintable word, we can't mess it up!

Lucy may come from 1993, but her voice and her energy are just what we need right now.

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