Reviving New York: Our Talk with ‘Big Crowd’ author Kevin Baker

By Phil James

The immigrant novel is a staple of American literature. In fact, you could argue that much of American lit has its roots such themes, especially considering the utopian ideals of the first Puritans who skirted by Plymouth Rock almost four centuries ago. Similar themes would be taken up by everybody from John Dos Passos to Willa Cather to Upton Sinclair, all of whom would chronicle the triumphs and pitfalls of the experience. For all the glory of ambitious enterprising, though, a tumultuous undercurrent of crime and corruption would emerge, especially in the overpopulated quarters of cities like Chicago and New York City. Baker, who has already written several novels on the city, would capture just that in The Big Crowd.

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We previously featured Baker’s ode to Coney Island in our list of essential New York novels, but there is an essentially darker tone to this book. Baker depicts the lives of Tom and Charlie, two Irish brothers who emigrate the New York City, fight in the Second World War, and eventually return to great fanfare. But when Charlie wins New York City’s mayoral seat after their wartime duty, their relationship gets complicated by an endless series of interests attempting to take any piece of the pie they can.

The novel–based on William O’Dwyer’s meteoric rise and fall from office–explores the complicated relationship of two brothers caught in a leviathan mess, but it is Baker’s depiction of the city itself that is the most pervasive. Constantly moving and constantly rebuilding, New York seems to subsume all individuals within its ferocious maw. In its chaotic underworld, some triumph and many disappear. But even in broad daylight, it is almost impossible to capture the zeitgeist of individualism so important to the nation’s mythos.

You can read my full interview with Kevin Baker below:

In The Big Crowd, you present an exhaustive view of nearly every facet of NYC society, but I couldn’t help but notice a particular sense of pessimism in some of the descriptions. Do you think that 1930’s-1950’s New York has been erroneously glorified by more recent media?

First, we’re really talking about two different eras.  While there was a lot to be said for 1930s New York, there was a lot being accomplished, it was a very vibrant, industrious, interesting place…it was also very much traumatized by the Great Depression, just like the rest of America.

We forget now how optimistic the 1920s had seemed to many people.  The Depression hit them like a lead pipe.  It wiped out all sorts of businesses, reduced middle-class people to utter poverty. People were literally being found dead of starvation in Grand Central.

But yes, I do think that even that time has been somewhat glorified in the media, and for many years now.  Don’t get me wrong:  postwar New York was in many ways the city’s golden age, a time of incredible intellectual ferment, of great wealth and little crime.  It was a tremendous middle-class city, in ways that it never had been before and probably never will be again.

So did things really get better, or did the suffering continue?

The postwar city, the city of the 1950s, as I try to convey, was a much, much richer, more optimistic place.  People were back from the war, they had more money than they’d ever seen before, they had great new opportunities opening up to them thanks to the G.I. Bill, and the great industrial expansion that was going on.  It was a much brighter time.

But yes, I do think that even that time has been somewhat glorified in the media, and for many years now.  Don’t get me wrong:  postwar New York was in many ways the city’s golden age, a time of incredible intellectual ferment, of great wealth and little crime.  It was a tremendous middle-class city, in ways that it never had been before and probably never will be again.

Think of the restrictions on so much of the population.  If you were a woman, you were excluded from most of the best jobs and expected to stay home and behave in very circumscribed ways.  If you were a black person, you were not only excluded from the best jobs, you were also excluded from the best restaurants and hotels, not allowed to live in most neighborhoods, and charged higher rents than whites in those communities where you were allowed.

Columbia, the best university in the city, had quotas limiting how many Jews they would accept—just like all the Ivy League schools.  Mario Cuomo could not get so much as an interview at top law firms because he was an Italian-American.

Now, all of this was changing.  But if you weren’t a white man, postwar New York often wasn’t so glorious at all.

What misconceptions about the mob underworld were you looking to address in the novel?

The power of the mob is often overstated, even romanticized in American popular culture.  But this really was its apogee in New York, at least, in the years just after World War II.  It was more powerful than it ever had been, thanks to the money it had made during Prohibition, and more powerful than it would be again.

And far from being romantic, these guys were pigs.  They were stone killers, and they would kill not just each other but any citizen they might be ordered to knock off—working people trying to make a living, or trying to build a decent union.  The mobsters who so captivated the press were thugs and psychotics, capable of cutting somebody to pieces, setting his body on fire, then going off and enjoying a big dinner, or going on a date, as the members of Murder, Inc. did all the time.

But even though they had more power than they did at any other time, the mob still only flourished because it was useful to a lot of powerful individuals.  Without the politicians and businessmen who found it worthwhile to employ the mob, it would have been stamped out pretty quickly.

Another misconception about the mob is that they just killed each other.  No, they killed any number of innocent people, brave young people, working people.  They kept countless others in poverty, and they passed on the cost of their thefts to everyone else in the country.

To a limited extent, both Tom and O.K. Charlie realize the American dream, albeit in two very different ways. With the incessant bustle of hard-working city-goers ceaselessly pushing for their own fortune, do you think that the moralistic aspect of reaching that dream has been “lost in the crowd”?

I think it’s very easy for that to happen, and I think it did happen sometimes for immigrants.

We forget, but immigrant life was so very hard, just surviving was so hard in America, that sometimes getting ahead and realizing your dream meant exploiting other immigrants, exploiting other poor people.  And I think it would have been very easy to look at the dog-eat-dog city all around you and feel justified doing that—to feel, this is just the way of the world.

This is, more-or-less, what Charlie has decided in the novel.  That life in the modern city and the modern world is a Darwinian struggle, and that even if you’re not out to enrich yourself, you need these big, powerful men to keep the social order together.

His brother, Tom, has reached the opposite conclusion.  His feeling is that the world is changing, that you can’t simply control people like that anymore, and that it never was a good idea in the first place.  They’ve gone out and fought a world war, they have more education than ever before, and they can think for themselves, and run their own society.

The Big Crowd contains dozens of colorful characters, all of whom enliven the reader’s impression of that era. But I couldn’t help but think of ‘The Big Crowd’ itself as a character, too, independent of many of the characters’ individual interests. Do you believe that the interests of the crowd overshadowed those of the individual?

It is interesting how a mentality like that gets established—the idea that you’d better not get out of line, you’d better not buck the system, or you’ll just get run over.

[The elite] tried to sell this mentality by creating a sense of inevitability about their success.  And they made out that they really were the people who should be running things—the most qualified, the ones who really knew best.

As elites so often do, they also made out that they were devoid of self-interest.  And of course that wasn’t so.  They very much had their own interests, and their own prejudices, even if they wouldn’t admit them to themselves, never mind the general public.

And as a result, they ended up doing all sorts of damage to the city. You had an entire generation of thoughtless “urban renewal” tearing apart neighborhoods, while good, blue-collar jobs were allowed to flee the city. So yes, in the end the needs of these few individuals overshadowed those of the city as a whole.  And the big “crowd” stomped the dreams and expectations of so many little individuals.

The New York you portray seems on the verge of many changes–technological advancement of the port authority, the construction of expressways, etc. Do you think that the end of World War II marked a tremorous shift for the city and if so, what changes still have a lasting effect today?

There was a seismic shift, and yes, some of the changes are still being felt today.  But then, New York is constantly undergoing one sort of shift or another.

The city became much richer, and it became much more modern.  It practically started what we think of as “modern architecture” with all those glass towers in midtown.  And the expressways cut through one neighborhood after another.

What we saw was really the start of the move away from fairly insular, middle-class and working-class neighborhoods, toward the white-collar city that dominates today.  That took a very long time, and there were many interruptions along the way.  But these years marked the start of it.

And you know, some of it was inevitable.  Some of it was an improvement.  The old city was often very poor, and very corrupt.  The slums were terrible.  People struggled to survive.  Many of the jobs they had were terribly exploitive.

So you think that there were many negative changes, too?

Where I think the real regret lies—or at least it does for me—is in how thoughtlessly many of the changes in the city went forward.  How much was lost for no good reason.

Great buildings such as the old Penn Station were torn down out of sheer greed and stupidity.  Great middle-class neighborhoods such as the old Bronx were lost for no good reason.  No one managed to find new ways to get decent, blue-collar jobs for our youth, or to make the city livable for much of the middle-class.

Worst of all—and I think this is closely related to all the needless loss mentioned above—we lost the functioning, modern democracy that we built under Fiorello La Guardia and FDR in the 1930s.

La Guardia really had found a way to run the city in a way that it was controlled by neither mob nor magnate.  New York was a true democracy.  The feds, in making New York the model New Deal city, provided much of the money to fund that and help us get back on our feet.  But we made it work.

Can you tell us a bit about what went wrong? The novel seems to suggests its socio-economic problems never really went away.

This created a vacuum where all these social ills crept in, and where the big crowd took power again. And we’ve been struggling with the consequences of that right up to this year’s election. How do you have a city that’s both a great place to live—and also not so expensive that nobody can afford to live there?  That’s the central conundrum facing New York to this day.

Do you think that historical fiction should merely portray the past as it was, or do you think that it should seek to challenge present misconceptions of it?

Well, I tend to think those approaches are one and the same.

People rarely have a very accurate concept of the past, at least here in America.  If they think about it at all—and they often don’t, Americans are very forward-thinking people—they think that our story is basically, all the immigrants came here, worked very hard, and got ahead.  End of story.

There’s so much more to it than that.  And many people don’t like the bad parts brought up because they feel that’s somehow defaming America.  But to me, the struggle is always the key to a democracy—the key to America.

Those struggles have often been ugly.  But at least we’ve been able to have them.  At least, in the end, some greater form of justice has generally won out.  That, to me, is the great thing about America.  So I would say that the historical novelist, like the historian, should try to depict the past as accurately as possible.  That in and of itself will challenge so many misconceptions about it.  You don’t need to go out of your way!

Fifteen Essential Novels About New York City

“I love New York on summer afternoons when everyone’s away. There’s something very sensuous about it – overripe, as if all sorts of funny fruits were going to fall into your hands.” – F.Scott Fitzgerald

I find it difficult to make a defining statement about New York City. The city itself is the pinnacle of urbanity the world over, with the one of the largest convergences of architecture, people, and of course, culture. The works below are only a few of the many that have tried to encapsulate the highs and lows of the Big Apple, and though it’s been said that everyone in New York City is working on their own novel, these have transcended the chopping block and become seminal journeys into the city that never sleeps.

Kevin Baker – Dreamland (1999)

Dreamland tells the typical New York City story in a uniquely atypical fashion. Centered around Coney Island’s “Dreamland” amusement park, Baker interweaves the plight of immigrants, grifters, gangsters and carnies into a historical novel garnished with the tawdry glitz of a turn-of-the-century landscape.

E.L. Doctorow – Ragtime (1975)

Set in the burgeoning turn-of-the-century rumble of a quickly-urbanizing New York, Doctorow chronicles the city’s history by clashing a middle class family’s life with that of Coalhouse Walker, a ragtime musician who is sick of racist persecution. Including real-life figures like Harry Houdini and anarchist Emma Goldman, this surprise hit has been continually studied by many critics who cite its maximalist treatment of historical fiction as a defining trait of late-century literature.

Henry James – Washington Square (1880)

Many of Henry James’ novels are set in the aristocratic circles of Europe, but his 1880 novel about a young woman struggling to find love happiness while living under the guidance of her manipulative and heartless father in New York City is exemplary of James’  timeless execution.  While less complex than his later Ambassadors and Golden Bowl, few can deny the simple elegance of this straightforward but heart-wrenching novel.

Henry Miller – Tropic of Capricorn (1938)

Banned in the United States until 1961, Miller’s story of his day-to-day struggles as a telegraphist in New York City brims with as much spiritually-charged language as “obscenity”, though the erotic flavor of his work is today more of a literary characteristic than a legal distraction. Focusing on his relationship with his wife, this semi-autobiographical novel delves into the true nature of oft-romanticized Bohemianism with equal parts pleasure and anguish.

Toni Morrison – Jazz (1992)

Jazz is one Toni Morrison’s only “urban” novels,  but she uses 1920’s Harlem in wondrous fashion to create a world that is as troubling as it is hopeful. Using the rhythms of jazz music to structure the novel’s unique style, Morrison analyzes in great detail the inter-generational consequences of Southern oppression upon those who migrated north.

Henry Roth – Call it Sleep (1934)

Qwiklit - Henry Roth - Call it sleep book cover

Critics have compared Henry Roth’s novel about growing up in poverty on the Lower East Side as both Dickensian and Joycean, but his exhaustive account of immigrant life in America has done much to reinforce New York City’s image as an uncontrollable but grotesquely beautiful leviathan of a city. Dealing with an  abusive father, living in rat-infested homes and witnessing abject poverty every day, Roth’s work just may be one of the few works monumental enough to capture the zeitgeist of a city often too much for words.

Don Delillo – Cosmopolis (2003)

While not as celebrated as his Midwestern White Noise or his nation-spanning UnderworldCosmopolis foresees the modernization of New York City and the world through the eyes of a 28 year-old Billionaire roaming around Manhattan in a stretch Limo. Published after 9/11 but set just before it, Delillo pointedly predicts what will in the future become important while also eulogizing the significant historical ingredients of a past century.

Edith Wharton – The Age of Innocence (1920)

Edith Wharton explored the dark underbelly of the anachronistic New York upper-class of her time, providing the reader with a detailed exploration of an aristocratic love triangle steeped in biting social satire. When wealthy New Yorker Newland Archer becomes enamored with the Polish Countess Olenska, his love threatens to rip apart the fabric of an already-decaying social circle.

JD Salinger – The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

JD Salinger’s seminal coming-of-age novel about the young and frustrated Holden Caulfield has become an essential read for youth today, but Salinger’s description of a labyrinthine New York City simply adds to the growing waves of angst he experiences over the course of the novel. Barring too audacious an interpretation, the city seems to add to the underlying feeling of disorientation that troubles one of America’s great anti-heroes.

Hubert Selby Jr. – Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964)

Just like Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn, Last Exit to Brooklyn spent most of its early years of publication marred by an obscenity trial. It’s legacy, however, has ensured its place among the great mid-century depictions of harsh, urban life. Selby Jr.’s books is a combination of six stories about down-and-out New Yorkers who must endure the vicissitudes of poverty, drug abuse and violence for what little shreds of happiness they can find. Along with Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, few works so accurately describe the infernal din of a city gone to Hell.

Paul Auster – The New York Trilogy (1985-1987)

City of GlassGhosts and The Locked Room make up with postmodernist take of the film-noir genre, where Auster himself becomes a recurring character in a number of criminal investigations. These aren’t conventional investigations, however; City of Glass, for example, is about a linguist father who deprives his son of any external communication to try to return his language to a strata of purity. Both oddities and masterpieces, Auster’s works have gone on to influence authors such as David Foster Wallace and John Barth.

Tama Janowitz – A Certain Age (1999)

Although her short story collection Slaves of New York brought her immediate fame on both sides of the Atlantic, it is her more mature effort that has solidified her place as an enduring American author. Channeling the aformentioned novels of Henry James and Edith Wharton, Janowitz’s story about Florence middle-class New Yorker trying to court (or be courted) by the Manhattan elite, exposes the significant disparity between the lower and upper classes while also revealing the tragicomic nature of living defiantly.

American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis (1991)

Ellis’ satire of Wall-Street, investment banker life is as horrifying as it is hilarious, combining the accounts of brazen, gruesome murders with product-emphasizing descriptions of designer clothing and extremely detailed summaries of embossed business cards. While Christian Bale’s enthusiastic portrayal of anti-hero Patrick Bateman from the 2000 movie is special in itself, Ellis sublimely intersperses his decaying thought process with a Rabelasian catalog of material goods, posh restaurants and hit music from the 1980’s.

Colm Tóibín – Bro0klyn (2009)

Sometimes the best descriptions of a place are from the outside in. Tóibín’s Brooklyn, the Irish author’s take on the American immigrant novel, differs from Theodore Dreiser’s and John Dos Passos’ narrative by providing the reader with little Romantic embellishing. Set in 1950’s Ireland and New York, the novel follows Ellis Lacey as she struggles to blend in and ultimately remain in the city she believed would provide her with fortune.

Colum McCann – Let the Great World Spin (2009)

Philippe Petit’s infamous tightrope walk between the two World Trade Center towers was no better documented than in the 2008 film Man on Wire, but McCann’s wonderful novel uses this event as a catalyst of a number of stories occurring down below, including the individual struggles of a monk, prostitute, artist and grandmother. Let the Great World Spin is, unlike Selby Jr. or Wharton’s novels, not enlivened by underlying currents of despair, but rather by the collective fragments of happiness and hope.