“A Visit from the Goon Squad,” Jennifer Egan’s previous novel, won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2010. It could be read either as a collection of interrelated short stories or as a time-bending novel, and it was dazzlingly postmodern.
Fans of that book will certainly be surprised by what Egan has done in “Manhattan Beach,” her brilliant and sharply perceptive latest book. Moving away from the postmodern experimentation of earlier works, Egan has cast this poetic new work as a traditional, almost Dickensian, novel with American life stateside during World War II at its center. Within this framework of the historical novel lurk a gangster saga, a coming-of-age novel, a sea adventure, a feminist discourse and a commentary on the American Dream.
“Manhattan Beach” opens with a scene that haunts every other moment of the narrative. Four days past Christmas, a father and his 12-year-old daughter make a mysterious visit to the Manhattan Beach home of the man he works for. While the two men quietly conduct some sort of business, the daughter becomes spellbound for the first time by the sea, and captivated for the first time by a man other than her father.
Dexter Styles is a well-positioned man who seems to have realized the American Dream. He appears to have achieved everything he desires: position, wealth and family. He is also a gangster with secrets that must be guarded.
Eddie Kerrigan has a shady past as well. He has risen from local bagman to become one of Styles’ most trusted associates. He can keep secrets, too, and he will do anything to provide for his family, especially his invalid daughter, Lydia, and his favored daughter, Anna. Anna is indeed something special to her father: “Only in Anna’s company was he truly at ease. She was his secret treasure, his one pure, unspoiled source of joy.”
Yet one night Eddie does not come home, and he slowly fades from his family’s memory.
A decade later, Anna finds work at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. Because the jobs that were previously held by men who are now overseas must be filled, Anna eventually becomes the yard’s first female diver. Her task is to repair the war ships that she sees daily.
One night at a nightclub with a friend, Anna finds herself once again in the company of Dexter Styles, and slowly comes to realize that she, her father and his former employer are inextricably linked by history and by the sea.
One of the novel’s major strengths lies in its exhaustive research. Although it is extensive, Egan’s research into the life and times of New York City and into the profession of diving is never intrusive or meretricious. That the research so deftly informs her lyrical narrative is the real wonder of the novel.
For it is the sea that holds all the knowledge that the three characters need in order to survive. That is evident from their first encounter topside at the beginning of the novel to the poetically rendered underwater diving scenes later on.
“Manhattan Beach” is compelling and profound. Its central metaphor of the sea links its central characters each to the other, whether it be through Dexter’s barefoot morning walks along the beach, Eddie’s shipboard life or Anna’s underwater work.
Each must learn to “see the sea,” for the sea can show them ways to transform themselves into the individuals they are intended to be. The sea can provide what Jennifer Egan wants for all of us: “a welcome and soothing respite from the hard intractability of land.”
Steven Whitton is a retired professor of English.