When a man knows another man
is looking for him
He doesn’t hide.
–Frank Stanford, “Everybody Who is Dead”
Even death starts to look attractive when hope is gone. And the fittingly named Gravesend of William Boyle’s first novel is a place where hope is regularly interred. Conway D’Innocenzio and RayBoy Calabrese are in a race. The finish line is their own demise, and the contest is neck and neck all the way. Death comes in many guises. Conway’s big brother, Duncan D’Innocenzio, found his when a gay-bashing teenaged thug and his pals chased him into traffic on the Belt Parkway. RayBoy, the alpha asshole, did 16 years for the deed, but the RayBoy that was is no longer. Now he is looking to pay for his crime for real. Conway wants to kill him, which would seem a nice match. Only problem is that, after sixteen years of planning his revenge, letting his life waste away while he stewed, Conway can’t seem to pull the trigger.
The death-wish field here makes it seem more like a group outing than a pairs event. Ray’s nephew, Eugene, is a 15-year-old, wanna-be thug, with a limp, a misguided case of hero worship and a worse case of bad judgment. Alessandra, an actress back from the other coast to help take care of her widowed father, is one of the few main characters here who seem determined to stay alive. The old classmate she looks up, Stephanie, is the epitome of what it is to be trapped like a rat in the place where you grew up, and to internalize the incarceration.
This is not the well-heeled Brooklyn of the Heights, the Slope, Fort Greene or Boerum Hill. Not the trendy arts scene of DUMBO, not the hipster haven of Williamsburg, nor the post-apocalyptic deathscape of Brownsville. Gravesend is a neighborhood on the southern end of Brooklyn, working-class, ethnic, hard-scrabble. Like most neighborhoods in New York it watches as one immigrant group moves up, hopefully, and another moves in. It used be primarily Italian, still is, but things are changing. Not always for the better. Unfortunately, for some, they are not changing enough, and the only way up is to blast your way there or to leave entirely. The place has its share of gangsters and gang-bangers, dive bars and secluded, while public, spots for the exercise of what is usually private behavior. And the environment helps make these characters who they are.
The author was raised in a small town in Brooklyn, and now writes and teaches in Mississippi – “I see Brooklyn in new ways from here.”
Boyle has plenty of experience with working class Brooklyn life, having had a full measure, hailing from the County of Kings, Gravesend in particular. He communicates quite well the ironically small-town feeling that pertains in so many New York neighborhoods, where kids have only a slight image of what may lie across the bridges and tunnels in Manhattan, or pretty much anywhere in the wider world. I can affirm from personal experience that Boyle speaks truth.
Neighborhood as small town or not, is it possible to go home again? And would you really want to? Can one really get satisfaction from revenge? Or is it that, in the same way that depression is anger directed inward, revenge is self-loathing directed outward?
The writing here is taut. I would not say that Boyle’s text is a place where adjectives go to die, but they’re not bleeding over the edges of the pages either. The narrative movement is certain and consistent, moving towards resolution of the inevitable sort. Which is not to say there are no surprises. There are. The story is not a mystery, per se, but more a look at how place affects people. Rayboy was admired as a kid for his thuggish exploits, was found attractive by girls. Not exactly a disincentive. Homophobia was hardly unknown in the environment of his youth. His nephew Eugene, short on adult male models on which to base his vision of what being a man looks like, fixates on the one male he knows who was effective and respected.
While the bulk of the story is dark, there are some rays of light. Good can be found, although more in thought than deed. Hope digs its way back up to the surface, allowing for some second chances. Alessandra’s affection for a particular painting at the Met can be seen both as an artistic inspiration and an omen. Her participation in various forms of Manhattan life lifts her spirits. After all, she did manage to make it out to the west coast. But hope had better move quickly before another body lands on it. Stephanie latches on to Alessandra as a way out, but she may be too limited to make a go of that.
Most of the characters may not be the sorts you would want your children to marry, but they are very well realized. Boyle offers us abundant surface, but also scrapes plenty of layers away so we can see what is going on beneath.
My gripe with this book was definitely of the minor sort. The title, Gravesend, is particularly apt, suiting well the content, given the body count, whether from violence or less dramatic means. But Boyle wanders a bit in his native borough. If you are expecting a singular, focused portrait of this neighborhood, fuhgeddaboudit. The author gives us a look, for sure, but we also spend time in Bay Ridge, Sunset Park, Manhattan’s East Village, a small slice of Queens and even go for a couple of jaunts upstate along the Hudson, these reflecting the author’s personal NY geography, or a lot of it anyway.
It was fun to walk through so many places that are personally familiar, Nellie Bly, the promenade near the Verrazano Bridge, Xaverian High School under another name, subway stations, and so on. I also related to the Stephanie character, as one of the things that makes me truly shudder is the thought of being stuck back in the Bronx neighborhood in which I was raised. No love-hate issues going on there. Such dark fears constitute more of a Twilight Zone episode.
Arthur Miller lived for many years in Gravesend, as did Carlo Gambino. In Boyle’s Gravesend we get to hear the patois of the latter, and look at the people and places of his tale through eyes that see the world a lot more like the former. Gravesend, Boyle’s first novel, is a pretty good beginning to what promises to be a very illustrious long-form career. Dig in.
Interview with the author from LA Review of Books – mucho goodness to be had here
Another wonderful interview with Boyle, by Irene McGarrity
Plumb Beach is the scene of a crime – here is some info on the place
A real life case that, the author confirmed, provided inspiration for the story.
This is the Joan of Arc image that Alessandra focuses on in the Metropolitan. It is a mind-blowing painting to see in person. This link adds some background to the work.