On the eve of the 2016 Brooklyn Book Festival, we caught up with Professor James Peacock, author of the remarkable Brooklyn Fictions, one of the most comprehensive and incisive surveys of the Brooklyn literary scene. A UK citizen, Peacock is Senior Lecturer in English and American Literatures and Programme Director for American Studies and English at Keele University.
What are the salient themes among contemporary Brooklyn writers?
"Whether you're looking at the romantic tradition of Brooklyn fictions, those that affirm certain values popularly associated with the borough such as diversity, community spirit, and the embrace of history, or the 'gritty' tradition, novels such as Hubert Selby Jr.'s Last Exit to Brooklyn, Gilbert Sorrentino's Steelwork, or Michael G. Stephens' The Brooklyn Book of the Dead which are characterized by poverty, crapulence, violence and resentment, the themes turn out to be similar.
They include immigrant experience; changing neighborhoods; the death of manufacturing industries and the rise of the tertiary sector; globalization and how it affects regional and local communities; the lived experience of multiculturalism; nostalgia for "old" Brooklyn and related questions of 'authenticity' - what's the 'real' Brooklyn? Did it ever exist?
It's no surprise, then, that gentrification is central to depictions of Brooklyn - it distills all of these issues, affecting every aspect of community life.
Gentrification stories are immigrant stories, too - it's just that the immigrants might no longer be working-class Irish or African-Americans from the south, but yuppies from Manhattan. Oh, and that's the other enduring theme - Brooklyn's fractious relationship with the shiny vertical center across the water. There is so much to say about that!"
Is there a Brooklyn "school" of literature? What typifies Brooklyn fiction?
"There isn't a 'school,' as such, despite the number of writers who have lived and continue to live in the borough, but recurring genres and themes include:
• The coming-of-age tale/family saga. The most famous is Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
• Crime fiction. Reggie Nadelson's Disturbed Earth and Red Hook capture very powerfully the feeling of a city surrounded by water, always on the brink of disaster.
• The Brooklyn memoir. One of the best examples being Alfred Kazin's A Walker in the City.
• The gentrification comedy, made famous by Paula Fox's Desperate Characters and L. J. Davis' A Meaningful Life, both from the 1970's. This genre continues to be popular today, in novels by Amy Sohn, Joanna Rakoff, Amy Shearn, and others.
• In Brooklyn Fictions, I identify a sub-genre of the gentrification novel, which I dub 'the Brooklyn motherhood novel.' A remarkable number of stories have been written from the point of view of harassed young moms trying to bring up their kids in the best way within rapidly changing neighborhoods. In these stories, the arrival of kids refocuses characters' attention on different community issues: crime rates, the quality and demographics of local schools, green spaces, the condition of playgrounds, the clogging of sidewalks by expensive designer buggies, the availability of organic baby food. The big issues."
For a taste of the Brooklyn literary scene, which books or writers would you recommend?
"I'd have to start with Lynne Sharon Schwartz's Leaving Brooklyn (1989). A beautifully written first-person, coming-of-age tale that revolves around a brilliantly complex metaphor for the way an individual looks at her neighborhood and her world.
Paula Fox's Desperate Characters, from 1970, is still the best gentrification satire. The language is astonishingly vivid, and Fox's depiction of gentrification as a kind of frontier struggle remains relevant and powerful.
Michael G. Stephens, a writer who should be read by more people, published The Brooklyn Book of the Dead in 1994, and it's one of the best books about warring families, nostalgia and that sense many of us have experienced of returning home and finding that 'home' has moved on and left us staring bemusedly at shop fronts with different signs from the ones we remember.
Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude are terrific. Although he doesn't always write about Brooklyn, Lethem is one of the most important Brooklyn writers. He's able to combine genres in such a way that the reader is forced to question the structure of reality over and over again, and in his Brooklyn fictions he shows how the neighborhood of childhood becomes a paradoxical fantasy of authenticity, a seductive romance.
Finally, Vaclav and Lena by Haley Tanner (2011) - a beautiful love story about Russian immigrants with fairy-tale qualities, but which doesn't shy away from the challenges and harshness of immigrant experience."
What are your favorite Brooklyn haunts?
"The Brooklyn Bridge is an obvious answer, but there really is no more enlivening sight than Manhattan Island as seen from the middle of the bridge, Rhapsody in Blue playing in one's head.
Brooklyn Bridge Park: one of my happiest memories is of a gloriously sunny day, discovering the park for the first time, my daughters playing the piano next to the water.
Von King Park in Bed-Stuy is also a favorite - full of life, surrounded by gorgeous brownstones.
Most of all, I like to walk, walk and keep on walking, seeing the neighborhoods change, keeping myself open to surprises."
Why did you write Brooklyn Fictions?
"My PhD thesis and first book were on Paul Auster who has written extensively about Brooklyn, and has even been dubbed 'the Bard of Brooklyn' by some critics. My second monograph was on Jonathan Lethem, whose novels such as The Fortress of Solitude share some of the romance of Auster's work while also being attentive to the realities of gentrification, inequality and race relations. In Edinburgh, I lived in Leith, the old port area. Like Brooklyn, it was historically separate from Edinburgh and retains a fierce independent streak and a unique character defined in part in opposition to the posher city up the road.
I visited Brooklyn for the first time in 2005. I have been in love with it ever since."