November 9, 2003
Winners' Tales: New York's New Classics
veryone knows the traditional New York classics, like E. B. White's "Here Is New York," from 1949, and Joseph Mitchell's "Bottom of the Harbor" (1959). But what books published in the past quarter century might join their ranks?
When the City section asked readers to nominate "the new New York classics," more than 100 books were suggested. Most often mentioned was Mark Helprin's 1983 fantasy "Winter's Tale," of which one respondent, George Fasel of Gramercy, said, " 'Winter's Tale' was the film Martin Scorsese should have made instead of 'Gangs of New York.' " Mr. Helprin's book gets an asterisk, however, because it benefited from an e-mail campaign by a group of fans.
Otherwise the top vote-getter was Tom Wolfe's 1987 novel, "The Bonfire of the Vanities." One reader who nominated it, Brenda Becker of Flatbush, Brooklyn, found it worthy "if only for its classic explanation of why a New Yorker can't possibly trade down from a $2.6 million apartment to a $1 million apartment."
Informed that his book had been frequently mentioned, Mr. Wolfe said he had instructed himself that "this will be a novel of New York" with the city "always in the foreground, a constant presence exerting its irresistible pressure upon the mind and psyche of every character, to the point where no one any longer has a soul independent of Colossus."
Also frequently mentioned was Calvin Trillin's 2001 novel "Tepper Isn't Going Out," whose pages, said Gina A. Spezia of Floral Park, Queens, are "packed with eccentric New York characters, authentic New York attitudes and, best of all, useful street parking tips." Said Mr. Trillin: "I'm obviously pleased at having produced a book that anyone considers a classic, although I wish I could get the phrase Classic Coke out of my mind. I assume this designation will result in an avalanche of parking novels."
Here are some other nominations from readers:
Bright Lights, Big City (1984), because nobody captures the dizzying 80's like Jay McInerney, midweek hangovers and all.
The New York Trilogy (City of Glass, Ghosts and The Locked Room) by Paul Auster (1985-87), because it shows the city, and not just Manhattan, through modernist lenses, full of puzzles and paradoxes, and presents our fully recognizable city reimagined in three short volumes.
Ladies' Man by Richard Price (1978), because it describes the sexual revolution in New York, and offers Price's gritty, persuasive take on the needs and fears of ordinary people and how they deal with a new code of behavior in love.
Just about anything by Louis Auchincloss (except The Rector of Justin).
Just Above My Head (1979), James Baldwin's finale, in which he plops us right down on the streets of a post-renaissance, crumbling Harlem. Or Oscar Hijuelos's Empress of the Splendid Season (1999), in which we share in a Cuban immigrant cleaning woman's self-transformation in Morningside Heights.
The Alienist by Caleb Carr (1994), for its magnificent descriptions of New York's streets and monuments. I was riding down Broadway one day, reading a portion of the book that coincidently described the very streets I was passing through, and it was wonderful and eerie.
Mr. Ives' Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos (1995) and Forsaking All Others by Jimmy Breslin (1982), novels that represent the newer sides of New York not often
seen. Let me also mention Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, published this year.
Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem (1999) is a crime noir that encompasses the linguistic fibers of Brooklyn, from Smith Street to Atlantic Avenue, with orphans and yoga to boot. Also Spidertown by Abraham Rodriguez Jr. (1993) in which Bronx Boricuas boogie-down through the last summer of innocence in a classic coming-of-age tale. And The Narrowback by Michael Ledwidge(1999): A Bronx Irishman gets caught up in politics, crime, and drink in a neighborhood loaded with all three.
Manhattan, When I Was Young by Mary Cantwell (1995), because it captures, better than any other book I know, the clashing feelings of starting a life in
New York: the excitement and fear of the subways and the crowds, as well as the profound pleasures of becoming familiar with the city.
Almost a Woman by Esmeralda Santiago (1998), about a Puerto Rican teenager in the city. And, of course, Pete Hamill's book A Drinking Life (1994) and his
newest, Forever (2003), about an Irishman in New York.