Book Review: Readings

Brooklyn is a place that demands to be understood literarily, whether the literature of choice is Walt Whitman's or Jay-Z's


Brooklyn Was Mine

edited by Chris Knutsen and Valerie Steiker
Riverhead Trade, 232 pp., $15 (paper)

The first time I went to Brooklyn was in 1995 and doesn't count – I spent one night in Williamsburg, which reminded me of Sesame Street. The second time, also Williamsburg, 1997, doesn't count either: At the time I had no inkling of the magnitude of the Brooklyn myth. The first time I really went to Brooklyn, I was reading – make that consumed by – Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude. I stayed in Prospect Heights but made a pilgrimage to Dean Street, took pictures, confirmed the existence of Pintchik's, and, unbelievably, saw the drummer for Holly Golightly get shaken down on a dark, leafy, brownstoned street, just like the kid in the book does.

It's a place that pretty much demands to be understood literarily, whether the literature of choice is Walt Whitman's or Jay-Z's. "Brooklyn has become an idea, a symbol, and a contested one at that," writes Phillip Lopate in his introduction to Brooklyn Was Mine; titled after a line from Leaves of Grass, this new collection of essays gathers some inheritors of the borough's writerly mantle to hold forth on that hallowed and embattled ground.

For all that, there's something prim about Brooklyn Was Mine. While its title implies contentiousness and claim-staking, aside from Lethem's "Ruckus Flatbush" – a very funny, dystopian disaster scene followed by a provocative apologia – and Lara Vapnyar's "I Hate Brighton Beach" – ambivalent and nuanced, title aside – most of the pieces are both smitten and vaguely rootless. Quite a few are soft odes to mostly predictable things that make Brooklyn at once small-townish and mythical: its baseball diamonds, Prospect Park, its toxic sludge, Coney Island, its (relatively) open skies, its jarring mix of the majestic, the industrial, and the verdant.

Other pieces in the collection, such as Alexandra Styron's "A Sentimental Education" and Lawrence Osborne's "Riding in Red Hook," deploy place to negotiate personal history. But because all of Brooklyn, as Philip Dray writes about the Williamsburg area in particular, "has an almost bottomless past," quirky histories of the borough's forgotten corners – Jennifer Egan's "Reading Lucy" (about a woman who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II), Emily Barton's "Eli Miller's Seltzer Delivery Service," and Elizabeth Gaffney's "Down the Manhole," about the excellence of Brooklyn's 19th century sewers – work best.

While the volume makes no claims of representation, the space where African-American Brooklyn should be is rather gaping, not to mention mysterious. The collection focuses heavily on early Eastern European immigrants, their descendents, and contemporary immigrants, for the most part skipping over the generations of U.S.-born African-Americans who undeniably and indelibly shaped the borough.

What's left, then, is the writing, which holds its own in Brooklyn's literary legacy. That these tales are masterful, elegant, and sweet makes it difficult to hold their slightness and occasional sentimentality against them. It must be said, however, that fewer mentions of the Kentile Floors sign wouldn't have hurt anyone.

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