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The International Writers Magazine - New York - From Our Archives

Reading - New York
Matt Allison

A couple of months ago after years of knowing of this historical novel, I had Naked Lunch in my backpack. Waiting for a subway in Queens I opened this novel and read the first few pages. The first person narrator has a manic flashback of a mug situation as he enters a New York City subway.

During the following few weeks I finished Burrough’s novel and was repulsed by the content. However, reading the first chapter as I entered and rode the subway radiated on me the importance of setting and recognizing that setting. From almost five years of living in Queens I notice my reading habits sway towards urban classics and specifically those that take place in New York. I find it fascinating to have familiarity with the streets and boroughs for these stories. With the exception of The Great Gatsby and Native Son all of the books I mention in this essay I read for the first time while living in New York.

Early on in my New York stint I read Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Right away I was captivated by the narrator squatting and using electricity underground. Then the story goes to the narrator’s childhood in the south with some disturbing scenes like the boxing match for his collegiate future. Eventually the narrator lives with a certain invisibility in the city. I remember one character gets killed near Bryant Park and I thought it neat as I read of that murder, that I knew that intersection.

About three years ago I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for the first time and since then I have already re-read it. This has become one of my favorite books because it’s a great American story and vividly portrays turn of the century New York. Williamsburg Brooklyn is now gentrified and where the recent college grads move to. But in Betty Smith’s time it was where an assortment of immigrants lived. Today parts in New York City are diverse and these immigrants strive for the American dream and betterment for their future generations.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn also mentions several outer borough locals that piqued my interest living in Queens. On several occasions I recognized with glee the places she refers to. I recommend this classic to anyone because it shows perseverance of an impoverished childhood and ends in triumph with Francie going to college.

When I read The Great Gatsby for the third time while here, it had more of an effect on me than the previous readings. I think mostly it was a combination of my age and life experience that made me recognize its brilliance. Also the parts that take place in the city like Gatsby’s business partner, and the apartment scene that Gatsby confesses to Tom Buchanan intrigued me.

In grad school I read Last Exit to Brooklyn by Herbert Selby Jr. but did not read his later work Requiem for a Dream until I lived here. Requiem for a Dream tells of a bleak 1970’s New York through a story of a junkie, his friends, and the woman he loves. The winters since I lived here have been mild, but the bitter cold is an experience in the city. In the middle section of this book the characters have to sell drugs in the middle of a harsh winter to survive and support their habits. The description of cold and desperation in this cult classic novel is bone chilling. During my five winters here when I shivered in the city I think to myself it could be worse.

A little over a year ago I went on vacation and took Manchild in the Promise Land by Claude Brown with me. My mother recommended this book to me years ago because her reading it long ago left an impression on her. Manchild in the Promise Land is an autobiography of a black man who grew up in New York in the 1940’s to 1960’s. I am glad that I waited to read this until I lived in New York and was familiar with the city. This man survived a gang childhood and later turned to academics. Part of the gang activity of his youth included what they called ‘The Murphey’ where they went to Times Square and offered to set up tourists with prostitutes. These Johns would give them money and they in return would give their customers a fake location, and run with the money. Today, in the port authority section of Manhattan after a certain time of night people still pull ‘The Murphey.’ Another thing I found fascinating about this memoir is that as he grew older music and college brought him into contact with people of varying backgrounds. Through college he dates a Jewish woman and talks of his experience with inter-racial dating. Today I think that New York City is ahead of other parts of America in the acceptance of diversity and people dating whoever they choose.

Last summer I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to by Alex Haley. This memoir accounts this historical figure’s life from the south, Michigan, New York, and worldwide. This book resonated with me, even though I didn’t agree with the religious philosophy. Malcolm X in the seventh grade was the class president of an integrated school in Michigan, and then in a bad turn of events became a criminal in Boston and then New York. The self education he did while in prison is unparalleled and amazing. At the end after seeing diversity in Mecca he changed his beliefs and generally wanted to improve society. I think every American should read this book. Shortly after I finished this book and with it very fresh on my mind I was walking on the Upper East Side with my sister and she pointed out the mosque that Malcolm X founded.

So far, all of these books have been about New York, but I can think of two similar books that do not take place in New York, but are about America. I was captivated by the poetic prose when I read Native Son and thought of it as the American Crime and Punishment. It was written and takes place in 1940 Chicago and tells of the disparity of this segregated city. Solid examples are given like the price of groceries being more in lower economic and minority areas. Growing up I always heard of the McCarthy era as the beginning of censorship and a determent to art. Reading Native Son you realize that communism and revolutionary ideals were very much alive here, and not just a European thing.

This book also has memorable metaphoric scenes that last with the reader forever. Another terrific social book I read here is The Jungle by Upton Sinclair that tells the trials of an immigrant worker in Chicago. Some of the factory scenes are horrific; he also gets shafted in a mortgage, and has to go to pubs in order to eat. Reading The Jungle makes a reader realize that America was built on the labor of people like him. Labor concepts resonate today when people too readily blame Unions for company downfalls and not the people in power making the decisions of those companies.

Looking over my essay of recommendations I see they are mostly twentieth century American literature. I can not think of another place I’d rather live than New York City, and I can’t wait for contemporary American books in the twenty-first century to grab me. I enjoy reading books with settings in all sorts of places, and have learned a lot about Paris, Russia, and the world through literature. But reading books with settings familiar has lasting value, and I think everyone should read their countrymen.

© Matt Allison June 2009

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