By Karl Taro Greenfield
253 pages, $26
By Ed Taylor
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
So if you put a half cup of Time magazine, a few shakes of dried Tom Wolfe, some grated rind of Jonathan Ames, a pinch of chopped New Yorker, and a few drops of Edith Wharton extract in a blender, you get not an unholy mess (you have to be careful using the Wolfe) but "Triburbia."
And what exactly is that? A meticulous fictional documenting of a real neighborhood in New York City: a novel of manners displaying a slice of the complex social codes and folkways, from the early 1980s to 2008 or so, among the tribe living in the triangle below Canal Street in lower Manhattan - Tribeca, a wonderful town within the wonderful town that is New York.
This description might make a potential reader yawn and look for something less parochial and possibly annoyingly self-absorbed, and that's cool. This piece of trade fiction might be cynically assumed to be narrowcasting to a niche market, say, people in Tribeca who like to read about themselves - Tribeca itself, even post-2008 crash, might be seen as a market probably at least the equivalent of one of the stepchild states like South Carolina, or maybe Vermont and Delaware combined - or maybe the niche market is people who like to read about the kind of people who like to read about themselves.
Either way, such assumptions wouldn't do justice to the craft and observation skills and imaginative empathy - wrought to the inner states of a widely varied cohort of Tribecans, that empathy Keats described when he wrote "if a sparrow come before my window I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel"- that Karl Taro Greenfield deploys in his first novel.
Greenfield's a former essayist and reporter for Time who's also published short fiction, and he brings the eye of a New Journalism reporter and a fiction writer's imaginative skills to the floating world of Tribeca during its boom years, when ground zero (pre-9/11 usage) for New York's art, media and real estate booms was this handful of blocks near the tip of Manhattan.
Greenfield is a Tribeca resident himself, living there with his wife and two daughters, and it is the familial evolution of a former urban frontier that is the crux of his narrative biscuit (to paraphrase Frank Zappa) - as might be inferred from the title. The book is among other things about the inevitable bourgeois-ification of even this formerly quintessential symbol of rapacious capitalistic bohemianism that is a natural effect in any place where people settle in for what feels like the duration. They get older, they pair up, they have children and pets, they worry about grocery stores and school, safety and convenience, getting sleep, getting comfortable. They slow down. They look backward more than forward, inward more than outward. They complain about the new people taking over the neighborhood.
This pattern occurs everywhere: here it occurs among the eternally young and hip, incipient millionaires and cultural players, members of the "creative class" and star chefs, and in one case, a gangster (a dead word now for arguably the real oldest profession - we need a better one).
Just as in other land rush episodes, the history of Tribeca is all about location, location, location. It's about individual space and a collective idea of "place." All the above themes and more play out in the narratives unfolded by Greenfield. There are nine "chapters," each titled after the Tribeca address of its protagonist, and one final chapter the address of which is in Los Angeles - a symbolic pulling up of stakes embodying the change rippling through the world of the novel by its end.
Each chapter features a central character, drawn from a nexus of those orbiting around a neighborhood school and its surrounding streets and a gaggle of fathers who regularly meet for coffee after dropping off their kids. Each section interlocks with the others, through present and past circumstances and the relations among the anchor characters: a sound engineer, a photographer, a sculptor, a puppeteer, the gangster, a chef, a playwright, a 10-year-old girl, her 18-year-old baby sitter, and two wives. In addition to the concluding section focused on L.A., the action in one section predominantly occurs on the Spanish coast.
Narratives are alternatively first person and third, so there's a variety of tone and voice in a narrative frame that could become cloying or monotonous if not handled carefully.
Voices heard here include both those at the top of the food chain, and those who represent the old Tribeca of scuffling artists and DIY homesteading and experimentation in work and life, of urban freedom from economic and social and cultural conventions - a Tribeca cohort virtually extinct.
The overall tone is an elegiac one: No one here moves through his or her story unscathed, not even the gangster (even he can't fight the overwhelming forces of demography, time, and mean girls).In clean, facile and flexible prose that isn't far from a Time feature, Greenfield leads each character through crisis and conflict - and in the process offers a documentarian's look at this world of $40 fast-food and multimillion-dollar lofts. Brands, sort-of famous and famous people, places, stores, streets, objects - if the beginning of wisdom is the calling of things by their right names, according to a traditional Chinese adage, then this is wise writing.
Greenfield physically anchors his world in its Abercrombie toddler wear and Land Rovers, but only as anthropology. These are just the artifacts of this world. (It is funny that there's no particular name for naturalistic fiction that actually names brands among the affluent, but when writers a generation ago began doing this among working class people this became "K-Mart realism.")
Greenfield's characters are, in general, lucky people, but still people, not stereotypes - Greenfield gives them their gloss but it's a crazed glaze, cracking even on the best of them, and in some going to pieces, and makes of it all an entertaining and illuminating tour.
Ed Taylor is a freelance Buffalo writer and critic.