On the Waterfront

The littoral locale that provides the title for Jennifer Egan’s excellent fifth novel may be difficult for even longtime New York City dwellers to fix in their minds geographically. (It was for me.) Despite the name, Manhattan Beach is not in Manhattan. “It’s near Coney Island but cleaner, private,” says Dexter Styles, an underworld kingpin and resident of the neighborhood, to Anna Kerrigan, a young woman working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II. Manhattan Beach is a rarely depicted patch of Kings County, among the most excavated locations in contemporary literature and film. And though the era that Egan explores—Manhattan Beach opens in 1934 and ends a decade later—stands among the most chronicled, and while several of her characters, like Dexter, may seem at first to be recognizable noir types, she brilliantly reinvigorates familiar conventions. Manhattan Beach is a fleet, sinuous epic, abounding with evocative details, felicitous metaphors, and crystalline historical assessments.

Egan’s latest novel might be the most traditionally structured she has ever written—it is certainly more so than A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010), Manhattan Beach’s immediate predecessor, a work fluid in time, point of view (first, second, and third person are deployed), and even genre. That Pulitzer Prize–winning book, as Egan explained in an interview with Heidi Julavits that ran in the summer 2010 issue of BOMB, emerged while she was trying to get started on what would become Manhattan Beach, which she referred to in this colloquy as “my goddamn Brooklyn Navy Yard book.” Manhattan Beach originated in 2004 during a fellowship Egan had at the New York Public Library; as she told Julavits, “I got interested in the fact that thousands of women worked at the Navy Yard during World War II, often doing traditionally male jobs like welding and pipe fitting.”

The bulk of Manhattan Beach, which is divided into eight parts, tracks Anna starting at age nineteen, when she is employed at the Navy Yard to measure and inspect minuscule parts for battleships (“nothing she handled was larger than a quarter”), work that she has begun to despise. Even in the early opening section, set in late December 1934, Anna, then eleven, is already working, though her labor is unpaid: At home she assists her mother, Agnes, a onetime dancer at the Ziegfeld Follies now doing piecework, by adding sequins to lavish hats. And she is a de facto adjutant to her father, Eddie, a bag man, one whose “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.”

Anna always pays attention. In Manhattan Beach’s first chapter, Eddie has brought along his daughter to his visit with Dexter Styles at the gangland bigwig’s house. Eight years later, she’ll remember him as “the man from the beach” when she sees Dexter at Moonshine, a nightclub he owns in midtown Manhattan; the “discovery arrived in a hot-cold rush, disorienting her as if the room had flipped on its side.” (Earlier, when describing one of Anna’s more elating sensory experiences at the boîte—her first taste of champagne—Egan delivers my favorite of her laser-precise similes: “The pale gold potion snapped and frothed in her glass. When she took a sip, it crackled down her throat—sweet but with a tinge of bitterness, like a barely perceptible pin inside a cushion.”) Ever vigilant, Anna can also expertly dissemble (a skill she begins to develop as a pubescent), instinctively introducing herself to Dexter at Moonshine using an alias and not reminding him (at least at first) of their first meeting nearly a decade prior.

Workers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, New York, 1942.  Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Workers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, New York, 1942. Brooklyn Navy Yard.

By the time of Anna and Dexter’s second encounter, Eddie has been gone for five years. Anna will eventually suspect, and set out to prove, Dexter’s involvement in her father’s disappearance, a mission that introduces another major plotline that I don’t want to give away. But Eddie’s vanishing at first seems partially the result of his unbearable revulsion toward Lydia, his severely disabled younger daughter, to whom Anna and Agnes are wholly devoted. Egan beautifully distills the affective atmosphere of the Kerrigan ménage—as a family of four, they live in Hell’s Kitchen; after Eddie leaves, they settle in Brooklyn—highlighting the unease that the harmonious distaff trio feels at having to accommodate the head of the household:

Anna danced holding Lydia until her sister’s floppiness became part of the dancing. All of them grew flushed; their mother’s hair fell loose, and her dress came unbuttoned at the top. She cracked the fire escape window, and the hard winter air made them cough. The small apartment shook and rang with a cheer that seemed not to exist when her father was at home, like a language that turned to gibberish when he listened.

Anna is an adept navigator, constantly crossing the border between the domestic sanctum and the shadow universe her dad inhabits. “Each time Anna moved from her father’s world to her mother and Lydia’s, she felt as if she’d shaken free of one life for a deeper one,” Egan writes with typical eloquence. “And when she returned to her father, holding his hand as they ventured out into the city, it was her mother and Lydia she shook off, often forgetting them completely. Back and forth she went, deeper—deeper still—until it seemed there was no place further down she could go. But somehow there always was. She had never reached the bottom.”

The passage, a potent précis of Anna’s emotional dexterity, nicely sets up what will be the protagonist’s most longed-for destination: the depths of the ocean. She first spots a diver, a war-effort profession previously unknown to her, while having lunch at the Navy Yard with a colleague, Nell, a sophisto-cynic who takes Anna to Moonshine (and later to an Upper East Side abortionist). Watching the aquatic explorer being suited up, Anna thinks “there was something primally familiar about the diving suit—as if from a dream or a myth. . . . She tried to picture him at the bottom of the bay—would he walk or swim? What was down there? Jealousy and longing spasmed through her. ‘Would they ever let us do that?’ she murmured.”

Let us do that: In some of the most searing sections of Manhattan Beach, Egan details Anna’s appetites—for sex, for a seemingly impossible career—and the blunt stupidity that thwarts her or demands her silence. (Another name for that blunt stupidity: patriarchal standards, aka the governing structure of the US and most of the rest of the world, then and still largely now.) After Anna, owing to the intervention of her encouraging (male) supervisor, finally secures an appointment at the diving division and successfully completes, while wearing a two-hundred-pound suit, the exercises required of her to qualify for a diving assignment, she is summarily dismissed. “Never in her life had Anna been obstructed by such naked prejudice,” Egan writes. “Those are the facts, the lieutenant had said, but there weren’t any. . . . There were no facts. There was just him. One man. And not even a beard.” The crisp, efficient demolition of sexism is all the more powerful for being so cool in its accumulated fury.

Anger, as the song goes, is an energy. That same naval officer, Axel, continues to vex Anna, who perseveres following his rebuff and becomes eligible for diving duties. Her wrath, her sense of injustice fuels her, though she cannot let the fire spread: “Hating him infused Anna with strength. But she had to conceal her rage, absorb it, even when doing so felt like drinking bleach. The slightest infraction would be grounds for dismissal. And then the lieutenant would have won,” Egan writes. Two days later, on her first assignment that will take her below the water’s surface, Anna stops swallowing and tamping down her anger and instead acts on it: “Following rules had got her nowhere. Passing tests had got her nowhere. In the course of getting nowhere, she had given up on some larger vision in which being good and trying to please made any sense. Why not take what she could while she had the chance?”

Passages like these briskly and forcefully diagnose a nation’s ills and establish Anna’s proto–political consciousness. To belabor these points would be to dilute them; Egan seamlessly zooms out and in throughout Manhattan Beach, a novel that magnificently captures this country on the brink of triumph and triumphalism, its ideology contingent on the vigorous enforcement of its various caste systems. Anna isn’t the only employee at the Naval Yard, or in Manhattan Beach, chafing against inequality. She, the lone woman in the division, like Marle, the sole African American in the diving squad (Egan uses “Negro”; her third-person omniscient narrator speaks in era-specific terms, often offensive ones), have a habit of “fading from the scene” when their colleagues start boisterously making after-work plans. Anna follows Marle’s example: “Though physically imposing, he’d a way of detaching himself from the general flow until it rushed on without him,” Egan writes. “Only Anna noticed, but she hid her awareness; an allegiance between her and Marle would jeopardize what slender ties fastened each of them to the larger group. And so the estrangement they had in common estranged them doubly from each other.”

Economically conveyed, those intricate observations above highlight Egan’s deftness at combining micro (her characters’ psychology) with macro (the social and economic conditions that shape their responses). In this, the writer is much like another of her maritime workers in Manhattan Beach, here scanning the Pacific Ocean: “When at last his eyes had adjusted, he’d looked out and noticed the sea as if it were entirely new: an infinite hypnotic expanse that could look like scales, wax, hammered silver, wrinkled flesh. It had structure and layers you couldn’t see from land.” In her survey of the “Greatest Generation,” Egan consistently, shrewdly readjusts her vision.

Melissa Anderson is the senior film critic for the Village Voice.