MANHATTAN BEACH, by Jennifer Egan. Scribner, 438 pp., $28.
Jennifer Egan’s “Manhattan Beach” follows her Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Visit From the Goon Squad” (2010), a brilliant tour de force which braided the lifelines of a large cast of characters into one ingeniously intricate pattern. The new novel is fairly straightforward in construction but superbly devious in plot — its characters time and again blind to the true nature of the situations in which they find themselves.
Anna, elder of Eddie and Agnes Kerrigan’s two daughters, is 11 years old in the mid-1930s when we meet her. She is accompanying her father on a visit to Dexter Styles, some kind of a big shot living in a mansion on Manhattan Beach, the place an overwhelming contrast to the Kerrigans’ tenement apartment in Brooklyn. Eddie, a longshoreman whom hard times have thrown out of a job, has been working as a bagman for John Dunellen, a corrupt union boss (“a big man with savage dock walloper’s hands” who “gave a drooping, corroded impression, like a freighter gone to rust after being too long at anchor”). Now, visiting Styles, Eddie hopes to move his game up a notch in order to afford an invalid’s chair for his severely handicapped younger daughter, Lydia.
Anna is not at all sure what’s going on, but whatever it is, it changes her relationship with her father. In the past she had been his companion as he paid visits to this or that person, passing on discreet envelopes before leaving; now she is left at home as he goes about his mysterious business. When Eddie disappears three years later, she believes that Dexter Styles is somehow involved.
The novel leaps to wartime. Eddie is still missing; and Anna has been working in the Brooklyn Naval Yard inspecting parts for the battleship Missouri. One night, out with a friend, she discovers that Styles is a nightclub owner — with, it emerges, any number of shady operations on the side. Using an assumed name, she makes it her business to cultivate a friendship of sorts with him — thereby generating a great and frightening part of the story.
She has also become entranced by the divers she sees emerging from the sea and their work on the underwater hulls of the great ships. She wants to be one and, in the face of hostile incredulity from the powers that be, she succeeds. Egan’s descriptions of mid-20th-century deep-sea diving are vividly detailed and daunting — and dramatically expand the theme of water that courses through this extraordinary novel. It is everywhere, as an element and as a medium linking the characters — in the waves on Manhattan Beach, in a near-lethal rip tide, in the bath in which the disabled Lydia revels, in a shark-infested Pacific, in a ferocious storm at sea and at the bottom of New York Harbor, the scene of two white-knuckle episodes.
The novel is a great exercise in storytelling might, throwing out two buttressing tales: that of Eddie Kerrigan, who was raised in a charitable institution for Catholic children — and whose later adventures create almost unendurable suspense; and of Dexter Styles, who balances marriage into a powerful, upper-crust banking family with his role in the underworld, beholden to an ancient mob boss, Mr. Q. This deeply unsavory creature is adept in the cultivation of out-of-season tomatoes — rarities that come to serve a chillingly revelatory purpose.
Egan’s extraordinary virtuosity of description and power of evoking a historical milieu are on display throughout “Manhattan Beach,” which is alive with fully realized, brilliantly rendered characters; even minor players are picked out in unforgettable detail.
Among the superbly horrible ones is Dunellen, whose appearances are rare, but whose role is pivotal. Without revealing anything crucial, I can say that he eventually meets the fate of more than one mobbed-up union boss: “Being dead did not hinder Dunellen from presiding over his own two-day wake, his silhouette like a pile of ore commanding the room from an oversize coffin. Under powder and pancake makeup, bullet holes were visible in his temple and forehead and neck. His wife, Maggie, howled inconsolably but garnered little sympathy. Her voluble grief — like her habit of yanking her husband out of bars prematurely — was widely construed as unwillingness to ‘let Dunny have a bit of fun.’ ”
Alight with such moments of black comedy, this truly fine novel, so rich in period and emotional atmosphere and so cunningly plotted, is a joy (and a terror) — one of the standouts of the year.