This historical fiction novel, both a family drama and a mystery, begins in Brooklyn in 1934 during the Great Depression. Anna Kerrigan, almost 12 years old, regularly accompanies her father Eddie on the job he has held ever since all their money was lost in the stock market. Now he serves as a “Bagman”, or as Anna understood it: “Her father’s job was to pass greetings, or good wishes, between union men and other men who were their friends. These salutations included an envelope, sometimes a package, that he would deliver or receive casually – you wouldn’t notice unless you were paying attention.”
Eddie hated his job, and homelife offered no sanctuary for him. He had another daughter, Lydia, who was physically lovely, but brain-damaged. Lydia and her special needs, as well as the juxtaposition in her (as he saw it) of outward beauty with total disability, educed in Eddie both rage and self-loathing, leaving him numb and spent. “She was not as she should be, not remotely, and the ghost of what she should have been clung to her always, a reproachful twin.”
Only in Anna’s company could he relax and feel good about his life: “She was his secret treasure, his one pure, unspoiled source of joy.” He felt about her that she “pumped life into him as surely as Lydia drained it.” He loved her voice, the pattering quality of it, and the feel of her small hand inside his.
When Lydia’s doctor recommended that she have an expensive special chair to help her sit upright, Eddie needed more money, and went to work for Dexter Styles, a powerful member of local organized crime who managed a number of clubs offering the opportunity for illegal pastimes. Even at the upper levels of crime, however, there was a hierarchy. While there were many people in Dexter’s own pocket, he himself was controlled by a Mr. Q., who basically owned him. As long as Dexter played by the rules, he was rewarded. But like Eddie, Dexter constantly has to be aware of his place and modulate his behavior accordingly. Eddie unexpectedly gave Dexter a taste of escape from the limitations put on him.
Eddie worked for Styles as his ombudsman, checking up on Dexter’s employees and later on his rivals. In a clever description of Eddie’s appeal to Dexter, Egan writes:
“Kerrigan’s cipherlike nature had been essential to the job. He could go anywhere, find out anything. Through him, Dexter had tasted an otherworldly freedom from the constraints of time and space.”
Unfortunately though, Eddie could not take Anna along on his forays to nightclubs and gambling dens, and they grew apart, to Eddie’s infinite regret.
The story shifts, and picks up again when Anna is 19. Her father had disappeared five years before. They never knew what happened to him. She felt sorrow at first, replaced by anger.
The country is now at war, and Anna works at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, where, because of the shortage of men, women are allowed to hold jobs that had always excluded them. Through perseverance and grit, she becomes the first female diver, “the most dangerous and exclusive of occupations,” helping to repair huge ships in the Manhattan harbor.
One night while out with a girlfriend, she ran into Dexter Styles at one of his clubs. He didn’t recognize her, so she used a false name with him, “Anna Feeney” (taking a neighbor’s last name). But she realizes he may know what happened to her father, and she continues to seek him out to get the mystery solved once and for all.
Discussion: There is some beautifully-phrased and deftly-constructed prose in this book. For example, when diving, Anna thinks:
“The ship felt alert, alive. It exuded a hum that traveled through her fingers up her arm: the vibration of thousands of souls teeming within. Like a skyscraper turned on its side.”
Or Anna, walking alone on the streets of New York:
“After years of distance, Anna’s father returned to her. She couldn’t see him, but she felt the knotty pain of his hands in her armpits as he slung her off the ground to carry her. She heard the muffled jingle of coins in his trouser pockets. His hand was a socket she affixed hers to always, wherever they went, even when she didn’t care to. Anna stopped walking, stunned by the power of these impressions. Without thinking, she lifted her fingers to her face, half expecting the warm, bitter smell of his tobacco.”
And there is this insight by and about Dexter, who is musing about the difficulty of working with women:
“… this was the problem of men and women, what made the professional harmony he envisaged so difficult to achieve. Men ran the world, and they wanted to fuck the women. Men said “Girls are weak” when in fact girls made them weak.”
And perhaps my favorite image, when the author describes Dexter Style’s house near the ocean:
“…a rowdy flapping of green-and-yellow striped awnings.”
Evaluation: Egan, who is the author of five books of fiction, including A Visit from the Good Squad, which won the Pulitzer Prize and National Books Critics Circle Award, takes on four big motifs with this book, any one of which could have made up a separate book: the dynamics of a family stressed by economic hardship and the birth of a disabled child; the nature of organized crime; the clash of gender and ethnicity in the 1940s; and life in the Merchant Marines, which serves as an auxiliary to the Navy during times of war.
For the most part, I think the author gives adequate treatment to all of these themes except perhaps for the organized crime aspect of the book; some of what happened to the characters because of their associations with this element remained opaque (to me) at the end of the story.
Nevertheless, this is a stirring and poignant story filled with memorable characters drawn with perceptive contours. The author’s research was extensive, and I think she adroitly captures a slice of life in wartime America. In addition, the issues raised and complexity of the story make this book an excellent choice for book clubs.
Published by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2017