International Writers Magazine - New York - From Our Archives
Reading - New York
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 Burroughs 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 narrators 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 its 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 Smiths 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 Gatsbys
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 1970s 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 1940s to 1960s.
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 figures life
from the south, Michigan, New York, and worldwide. This book resonated
with me, even though I didnt 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 Id
rather live than New York City, and I cant 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
© Matt Allison June 2009
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