"What's The Story?
Updated: May 22, 2020
A Weekly Roundup of Fiction Recommendations
By Gwen Cooper
“Hello to All That” Edition
Between the boarded-up restaurants, shuttered theaters, abandoned storefronts, and once-bustling thoroughfares now eerily devoid of traffic—not to mention the upper-crust denizens scrambling for their beachside second homes—it would seem as if Manhattan has been brought to her knees, at least temporarily. But the Big Apple has always been as much an idea as a place, which makes it all but inevitable that she’ll rise again. In the meantime, here’s a collection of novels that remind us there’s very little as exhilarating, terrifying, heartbreaking, eye-opening, and downright ecstatic as being young and fresh off the boat (bus/train/plane/et cetera) in New York City.
Valley of the Dolls, Jacqueline Susann – “New York was steaming—an angry concrete animal caught unawares in an unseasonable heat spell.” The opening line of Valley of the Dolls is a gloriously incoherent metaphor that every New Yorker nevertheless intuitively understands—and one that strikes me as oddly comforting in these, the days of New York City’s great distress. Via the characters of Anne, Jennifer, and Neely—three starry-eyed young ingénues striking out for fame and fortune in the big city—Dolls will take you in, out, and around the deliciously seedy underworld of Manhattan show biz in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and it’ll keep you thoroughly entertained every step of the way. But when you’re having this much fun, arguments over literary merit seem churlish and entirely beside the point.
The Best of Everything, Rona Jaffe – Here we have another mid-century triad of fresh-faced girls new to the city: Caroline, April, and Gregg. Everything, however, takes us behind the scenes in the publishing industry—although it’s every bit as tempestuous, sudsy, and sharply observed as Dolls. The barn-burner of a plot is both titillating and candid as it delves into issues of sex, dating, abortion, and career advancement. The result is a fascinating and canny portrait of female ambition that nevertheless never strays far from its pulpy roots. Everything takes us from Manhattan’s high-rise office towers to its low-rent rooming houses, and brings to vivid life all the dreams, schemes, and heartaches that pave the path from the latter to the former. A thoroughly un-put-down-able read—and far better than the movie it inspired (although Joan Crawford’s performance is priceless).
The Group, Mary McCarthy – Norman Mailer famously dismissed this novel in The New York Review of Books as “a trivial lady writer’s novel”—which tells you nothing insightful about The Group, but tells you something very insightful about Norman Mailer (and makes watching Germaine Greer’s public trouncing of him in the 1979 documentary Town Bloody Hall that much more gratifying). This time around we’re following eight, not three, recent college graduates through the Manhattan of the 1930s. Once again we have the kind of frank depictions of sex, contraception, the female orgasm, and lesbianism that caused the book, published in 1963, to be dismissed by “serious” critics as a mere “potboiler”—although it became a runaway bestseller, which would seem to indicate that it struck a resonant chord with a wide swath of the female reading public. The Group turns its gimlet eye on the ins and outs of romance and the inevitable renegotiating of college friendships as the characters move into adult life, yet spends equal time examining the pursuit of career ambitions with razor-sharp wit. Through it all, New York City’s glass-and-steel skyscrapers gleam in the background, as cool and self-contained as the prose itself.
Bad Behavior, Mary Gaitskill – It’s a decidedly seedier and more feral Manhattan that we enter with Gaitskill’s collection of nine short stories, which caused a minor literary sensation when first published in 1988. Emphatically leaving behind the comparatively glamorous worlds of theater and publishing, Gaitskill takes us into an Alphabet City populated by prostitutes, addicts, and the nightlife habitués who enjoy taking a walk on the wild side in their company. Through it all, however, Gaitskill maintains a wit and wide-eyed wonder that make her stories feel droll rather than dreary. It’s exactly the kind of book to send shivers up the spines of teenaged girls reading under the covers late at night—in far-flung suburbs from Altoona to Albuquerque—as they half fearfully, half hopefully imagine where their own New York adventures might take them someday. Which is to say that this book is gritty and grungy, and also an absolutely essential New York read.
Open City, Teju Cole – Lest you labor under the misapprehension that I consider only female novelists’ takes on New York to be worth reading, I’ll conclude with the most-recent entry on this list: newcomer Teju Cole’s impressionistic, diary-esque recounting of a series of long walks taken over the course of a year by Julius, a half-Nigerian, half-German first-year med student. Julius’s late-night perambulations take us from Central Park to Ground Zero, from Penn Station to Harlem, and introduce us to a kaleidoscope of Manhattanites—most of whom are also recent immigrants, living the 21st Century version of that great and ageless story of New York and newcomers. It’s a heartening reminder now, in what can sometimes feel like New York City’s end of days, that the more things change, the more they stay the same—even in a city as intractable, improbable, and irrepressible as New York.
Gwen Cooper is the New York Times bestselling author of Homer's Odyssey and My Life in a Cat House, among numerous other titles. Her latest book, The Book of Pawsome: Head Bonks, Raspy Tongues, and 101 Reasons Why Cats Make Us So, So Happy, is now available for purchase on Amazon.com. Gwen will donate 50% of the first week's proceeds to Meals on Wheels.