Imperial City

The best awful book I’ve read in awhile. Truly awful, but could not put it down. Trashy, in a 1930s kind of way (pub’d in 1937). Filled with the fabulous four A’s: adultery, abortions, alcoholism, apathy. Unfortunately populated by extremely wooden characters and stilted dialog. But the drama! And the amount of characters that gets packed into nearly 700 pages! There are so many characters interwoven in the plot that luckily the awful writing sometimes stoops to telling you why a particular name sounds familiar, such-and-such is so-and-so’s daughter/son/wife/cousin/girlfriend/sponsor/pastor. Exhausting. However, I find it was worth the struggle. Who can resist a portrait of 1937 New York, the gilded class, the theater class, the underclass, Harlem rioting? This upper-crust family of misfits includes a capitalist pig, a communist professor, a drunk playboy, and a clueless heiress who marries a gay man. The capitalist, Christopher, has a disease (usually called alcoholism) that he indulges by getting onto his yacht and getting blotto for a month. “The last vestige of self-discipline disappeared, and this emperor of finance and industry… became suddenly a goggling, drooling inebriate.”
So many characters to write about! Some words should be used to describe the mysterious Terry Minning whose calm, sarcastic indifference melts as she pens a letter to her beau Mack, retreated to the wilds of Hollywood for work. She doesn’t want marriage but he does. It’s a common theme among the strong ladies. The weak ones, like the actress/harlot Ruby and demure secret-Jewess Helene Little, desire marriage to stable and rich men. So many characters, and they almost all appear as jury candidates for the trial at the end! It makes it seem like the 7 million people population of New York in 1937 was the size of a small 500 person town.
Beautiful depiction of Coney Island plebeians:

As Elinor stared, in fascinated horror, details began to emerge from the seething mass. Her eye picked out individuals or groups in the horde below her. Companies of young people played leap-frog, tossed balls back and forth over recumbent bodies, shuffled in the loose sand to the accompaniment of portable phonographs, pushed each other roughly about, sang noisily, exposed their raw backs to the withering sun, and sat or lay with bare arms and legs amorously intertwined. (p 41-2)
Everyone’s jaws were moving: those who were not munching ice-cream cones and hot dogs or licking lolly-pops were industriously chewing gum. The air was thick with the smells of brine, pickles, sauerkraut, spiced sausage-meat, sizzling lard, and human exhalations. People shoved and trod on each other’s toes to reach the booths where stentorian vendors extolled the merits of pop-corn and pink spun sugar and Eskimo pies. Spectators stood five-deep behind the players of skee-ball, Japanese ping-pong, and coney races. There were long queues waiting to buy tickets for the Old Mill, the Love Ride, the jolting little electric auto-racers, the barrel in which the motor-cyclist risked death, the crèche where the pre-maturely born babies were displayed in incubators. In the swimming-pools of the large bathing establishments, the divers shouted and splashed. (p 43)

Reco’d by Neglected Books