Over the Big Top

Coney Island comes alive in this sprawling tale

When writing a novel set amongst New York's Coney Island amusement parks in the early 20th century, the author's greatest challenge may be to make the features and follies of those places seem credible. The whole enterprise sounds like fiction nowadays—and not always pleasant fiction, either. Dreamland

by Kevin Baker (HarperCollins, $26) A "perpetual circus" is how one historian described Coney Island at its height. The area hosted a trio of great playgrounds—Steeplechase, Luna Park, and Dreamland. Of those, Dreamland was the most outrageous, with its re-enactment of the Fall of Pompeii; a Venetian Doge's Palace with gondola rides; an "Infant Incubator," where prematurely born babies were nursed out of danger; and fires staged twice daily in tenement house mock-ups, just so poorer visitors to the island could witness familiar horrors at a safe remove. Kevin Baker has done as fine a job as any author I know of in capturing that park's garish excesses in print. In Dreamland, Coney is an escape for Gotham's masses, a spot nuzzled by ocean breezes, where competing wonders divert the eyes and the fragrances of sawdust and roasting corn fill the nose. Lest you become nostalgic, though, there's also a nightmarish aspect to Dreamland. Demonic dwarfs torment park-goers with cattle prods to entertain other passersby. Men paw hungrily at women's breasts on carousels. A new roller coaster careens off its track, killing passengers—only to draw even larger crowds thereafter, attracted by the keen risk of death. The famous Tin Elephant Hotel, erected as a novelty for respectable tourists, becomes a house of prostitution, echoing at all hours with the noise of a ribald commerce. But this sprawling book accomplishes more than to just re-create crazy, kinetic Coney (circa 1910) for a modern audience. Dreamland is a tight ball of yarns—humorous, romantic, and violent—that occur not only in the amusement park, but around Manhattan's Lower East Side, a polyglottish province of mobsters, crooked politicians, and impoverished immigrants. It's there, during a dog-and-rat fight, that an Eastern European gangster called Kid Twist clubs a rival hood, Gyp the Blood, before the latter can murder a newsboy. Only the rescued urchin turns out to be Trick the Dwarf, a carnival barker and self-proclaimed mayor of Dreamland's extensive midget city, who repays the Kid by giving him asylum in one of the Tin Elephant's ass-end guest rooms. While in hiding, the Kid meets and eventually falls in love with Esther Abramowitz, a sewing machine operator who (much to his distress) turns out to be Gyp the Blood's sister. And that's merely the spine of Baker's story. Onto it he has grafted a series of secondary and revealing plots, including Trick the Dwarf's courting of a miniature beauty who thinks she's the Empress of Mexico; a police corruption scandal that threatens New York's Tammany Hall political empire; the efforts of a sentimental pol, Big Tim Sullivan, to maintain his grasp on power while acceding to the demands of upper-class women reformers; a journey to Coney Island by psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung; and, most satisfying of all, Esther's maturation from a lowly shop worker, hounded by her bitter Jewish father, into a self-confident labor organizer. Dreamland's juxtaposition of Coney Island against the Lower East Side—the high life vs. the low—is served well by the author's attention to period details. Kevin Baker, it turns out, worked as chief historical researcher for The American Century (1998), by Harold Evans, a role that schooled him in the dress styles, songs, and slang that help give this novel verisimilitude. In these pages, "white paper badges of mourning" flutter from tenement doorways. Gents strut about with "pomaded" hair, and scenes that might have been given short shrift by a writer less interested in the multiple textures of an early-20th-century urban existence are explored here in depth. Baker (as he concedes in an afterword) is less concerned about accurately rendering the chronology of history, manipulating some facts for maximum dramatic effect. For instance, by 1910, the daily tenement burnings at Dreamland had been replaced by a simulation of San Francisco's 1906 earthquake and fire. Although George B. McClellan, "son of the famous Civil War flop of the same name," appears in this tale as mayor of New York, he'd actually been voted out of City Hall years before. And, oddly, while the author painstakingly re-creates the surreal execution of a supposedly rogue elephant (with Thomas Edison presiding), he changes its name here from Topsy to "Lucy." But who couldn't forgive a bit of fantasy in a book about a place where fantasy ruled? Dreamland, rich with sensual imagery, rife with well-imagined characters, and elegantly written, is a fun-ride of a story: You never know what's going to happen next. And the end comes too soon.

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