Lead Review. Plus the author chats about NEW YORK CITY
- Book: Men Like Air
- Location: New York City (NYC)
- Author: Tom Connolly
This is April in the city, the city that never sleeps, the city that is dreamy and multifaceted, loud and vibrant, never dull.
Nineteen year old Finn flies in with his girlfriend Dilly. Where will they be staying? Certainly not in the scrubby apartment that Finn has organised. And his brother, Jack, is less than welcoming due to a severe head cold. But there is old history between the brothers following the death of both their parents.
New York City is a major character in this novel, the streets and avenues cradle the lines of the narrative and it is against this backdrop that Finn begins to find his feet. The characters navigate the city, uptown, downtown, across the water, up to 10th Street and on, from the crockery and old T shirts to the canvases and installations beyond… Finn strays into Leo’s gallery and the book opens up to explore relationships that morph and meander across the grid of the city. It is a novel about friendship, art and understanding the person we might be… and of course about New York.
Finn finds himself heading out from Grand Central to Queens, and descends on the New Calvary Cemetery, and turns to look back at the mountain range of brick and steel peaks called Manhattan. There are just wonderful turns of phrase that capture the feel of the city and the nuances of everyday life, at which Tom Connolly excels. You can tell that he is not only an author, but also a film maker, his prose has a very visual quality to it.
If you can find your way to our website, we feature the author talking about New York City and his impressions, plus he shares personal photos of the city.
Over to Tom for a bit more on this amazing place…..
In 2006, I took a break from writing my first novel, The Spider Truces, and returned to New York to research an idea I had for a story called Men Like Air. I thought I knew New York pretty well by then. I spent a lot of that trip in Chelsea, because one of the characters was to be a gallery owner there. ClampArt were exhibiting original prints by Arthur Tress from the late sixties. I am an admirer of Tress’ work and this period of his photography is my favourite. There was something about the physicality of his print of Cemetery View that made me want to find the spot he had taken it from. My subsequent trips out to Queens on the 7 line I passed on to one of the book’s lead characters, Finn, a nineteen-year-old English boy escaping an abusive home life to come to NYC in search of his brother.
Walking the residential neighbourhoods of Queens, crisscrossing beneath the Long Island and Brooklyn-Queens Expressways, peering over the corrugated iron walls of back yards, reading Save St Katherine’s Church posters in anairless café on Greenpoint Avenue, I quickly recognized that after 14 years I didn’t know New York City at all. Manhattan, a little, but not the city. Like any writer or film-maker, I need the texture of a place, the fingerprint detail that reveals the lives of others. That’s why I am a devotee of artists like Saul Leiter and Andrew Wyeth. Searching for Cemetery View offered many visual pleasures, and the first was watching Manhattan reveal itself from the east through the grubby rear pane of the 7 train as the carriages rose out of the East River and on to the elevated tracks above Hunters Point and Sunnyside. Iron stairwells descend from the platforms on to Queens Boulevard. This area of Queens is a child’s eye view of the Metropolis; trains above you, cars around you, the scraping and clatter of the elevated expressways, shops that people need, rows of small uniform houses with patchy back gardens, and the view – the view – of Manhattan stretched across the horizon, the whole shebang, from Battery Park to Harlem. The view, but, so far, only one half of Tress’ photograph. I spent days strolling the three Calvary Cemeteries and Mount Zion, gazing at numerous vistas of the Empire City, each one fractionally different, each one breathtaking. Equally rewarding were the various approaches to the graveyards, through the wide open emptiness of the industrial streets below Greenpoint Avenue and the residential backstreets with gardens filled by scrap and weed strewn grass, the perfectly maintained house shaking beneath the Expressway, a teenage boy pitching tennis balls at the side of his house and catching them, living a Mets dream in his head.
I went to meet Arthur Tress and he was both vague – “I might have climbed up on to the expressway, I can’t remember, you can take a better photo” (dear reader, I cannot) – and generous – “you can use the image in any way you choose. Write a great book.” The search became more interesting than the view, and it opened up the whole city to me, the whole book to me; the river’s edge in The Bronx, the aborted half streets dissected by the main highways, the creases of the city. I had done a lot of writing about New York City in the first two drafts of my book and in the third, I threw it away. All of it. I re-wrote the characters’ lives in a limbo, against a white cyc. I concentrated on their stories and the sound of their voices. And then I returned to New York and spent months walking around and looking for the nooks and crannies where my characters carved out their lives. The area around the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, like a huge sink hole patched up and already sinking again, became home to two of my characters, a hovel in a fictional dead end gully in the shadow of the Con Ed plant on The Lower East Side offered itself up to two more. In contrast, my Chelsea gallery owner was housed in the opulence of Gramercy Park and my hero’s older brother found himself in a soulless modern apartment block where the Upper East Side strayed towards Spanish Harlem.
Your relationship as a writer to a setting mirrors that to your characters. You know you’re in business when you get beneath the surface, go beyond the obvious. I bear no resemblance to my character, Finn – I wish I did, he’s cool and fit – but my search for the Tress photo felt clearly relevant to Finn’s story, more relevant to him than to me. The backstreets of Queens, and the Italian and Irish tombstones of Calvary enabled me to understand Finn and locate that place of quest for a young man raised in alcohol and bullying, now within grasp of freedom. In Calvary Cemetery, removed from Manhattan and residing over the greatest of views of it, I found the place where my orphan boy finally realised that until he had found peace with his brother, there could be no such thing as freedom.
Tom Connolly, September 2016
Check out the link to our blogpost where he shares personal photos of the city.