In Jennifer Egan’s The Keep, a former New York club promoter boasts a sixth sense for authority: “Danny could walk in a room and know who had power the way some people know from the feel of the air that it’s going to snow.” It’s a common trait among Egan’s characters, attentive people who pay particular attention to power—which often means witnessing their own defeat. Charlotte Swenson, the jaded model who narrates much of Egan’s Look at Me, sees almost every distinction in New York’s social hierarchy, rendering her exile after a car wreck even more painful than her physical wounds. Just about every mover and shaker in A Visit From the Goon Squad, Egan’s most celebrated work of fiction, observes the accumulation of power somewhere else. Some characters reach impressive heights, but never in their own narratives, and each chapter spotlights a different character in a moment of sublime impotence. Though time is the book’s titular “goon,” power is certainly its accomplice. Trying to hold on to either is as fruitless as trying to capture the sun—something that one character actually does, albeit in a wire circle in her window, fully aware that it will slip from her grasp.
On the surface, Egan’s latest novel, Manhattan Beach, is a tale of New York’s forgotten waterfronts, offering that particular mix of melancholy, exuberance, and danger we tend to associate with tales of the sea. Yet it, too, is a study in power. Set in Depression- and World War II–era Brooklyn, Manhattan Beach focuses on a Navy-shipyard worker named Anna Kerrigan; her father, Eddie, a go-between in the dockworkers’ union; and Dexter Styles, a racketeer with a literal goon squad. In tracking the fates of these three characters, the novel also tells us something about the hidden ways in which organized power worked in early-20th-century New York.
The story opens with 11-year-old Anna accompanying her father on a house call in the South Brooklyn neighborhood of the title. Anna doesn’t know the exact nature of her father’s association with Mr. Styles, but she knows that she has to be on her best behavior. Standing on the rich man’s private beach, Anna has her first real encounter with her unconscious: “What would be exposed if all that water should suddenly vanish? A landscape of lost objects: sunken ships, hidden treasure, gold and gems and the charm bracelet that had fallen from her wrist into a storm drain.”
When we next meet Anna, in 1942, she’s 19—and while the sea hasn’t vanished, her father has. Anna has become the family’s breadwinner, providing for her mother and her disabled younger sister. Her job is inspecting battleship parts at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, but during a lunch break she glimpses a diver in training and discovers a latent ambition: “She watched, spellbound, as the helpers lifted a spherical metal helmet over the diver’s head, encasing him within it. There was something primally familiar about the diving suit—as if from a dream or a myth.”
Unfortunately for Anna, there are no female divers at the Navy Yard—the work of repairing warships underwater is considered too strenuous for women—but she can still dream. Part of her ambition is physical: She wants to feel the weight of that suit, to breathe underwater and walk on the bottom of the sea. But it also seems to have something to do with her father, whose memory keeps resurfacing. Then she visits a nightclub whose owner is none other than Dexter Styles. Anna wants many impossible things—to find a cure for her sister’s malady, to locate her father, to become a diver—and, suddenly, in the powerful, ethnically ambiguous person of Mr. Styles, a man she associates with the sea, she senses a key to them all.