Book Bag: Five Great Books About New York City
A novelist names his five favorite books about Gotham, ranging from an E.B. White classic to the fictional inspiration for the Charles Bronson revenge flick Death Wish.
Looking at New York City through the lens of literature is like looking through at a star through the lens of a telescope. By the time the light gets to you, the star is gone.
New York is in a constant state of flux, different right now than it was when I started writing this sentence. The best a writer can do is preserve moments in time. That’s why I wrote New Yorked. It’s a fictional story about an amateur private investigator, a dumb kid looking for his moral compass, but it’s also a snapshot of the New York City that I know and love and which already sometimes feels like a memory.
Here are some snapshots of New York City that inspired me.
In the City of Shy Huntersby Tom Spanbauer
This is the first novel I’ve ever finished, closed, opened back up, and started reading again. To my mind, it’s the best book ever written about New York City, full stop.
Published in 2001, it’s set during a violently transformative time—the AIDS crisis in the ’80s—told through the eyes of Will Parker, a young man escaping a provincial western town. The quintessential “city as savior and persecutor” tale, it digs deep into the beating charcoal heart of New York City, highlighting the agony and the ecstasy in a way that’s stunning and heartrending and utterly without equal.
Death Wishby Brian Garfield
The 1974 film starring Charles Bronson is a celebration of violence. Paul Kersey and his trigger finger are the answer to who will save a city gone to hell. But the novel, published in 1972, is far more thoughtful.
Death Wish follows a staunch liberal (here: Paul Benjamin) who turns to vigilantism following a brutal attack on his wife and daughter. It explores the dividing line between order and chaos, and what happens to a man when he crosses that line. And it’s a memorial to the Bad Old Days, when taking the subway meant weighing the worth of your destination versus the high chance of getting mugged.
Here is New Yorkby E.B. White
At less than 60 pages, this slim volume is best described as a love letter to New York City. It evokes the feeling of strolling alongside White on a cool spring day as he gives you a tour of his own personal New York.
It’s remarkable how modern it feels. First published in 1949, even the introduction warns that capturing New York in words is futile, because to “bring New York down to date, a man would have to be published with the speed of light … it is the reader’s, not the author’s, duty to bring New York down to date; and I trust it will prove less a duty than a pleasure.”
The Colossus of New Yorkby Colson Whitehead
If White wrote a love letter, than Whitehead wrote a mix tape. This collection of essays and vignettes, released in 2004, make up the blueprint for his personal metropolis. The portrait of this place drawn by his life and experience is unique to him but oh so familiar.
He also established, for my money, the yardstick against which your bona fides can be measured: “No matter how long you have been here, you are a New Yorker the first time you say, That used to be Munsey’s or That used to be the Tic Toc Lounge… You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now.”
Gravesend by William Boyle
This working-class noir, published in 2013, eschews the glitz and glamour of Manhattan for the more suburban environs of South Brooklyn. Specifically, Gravesend, a neighborhood that feels locked in time even as the history of it is slowly eroding.
The sense of place is strong and achingly familiar. What aches more are the paths of these characters, orbiting around the tragic death of a young man more than ten years past. Each of them is marching toward something terrifying, or maybe just inevitable. It’s an incredible tour of want, loss, family, hatred, and a neighborhood most people couldn’t find on a map.