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.
Manhattan Beach is Egan’s longest book, and by far her most traditional. Neither self-consciously ironic in style nor particularly playful in form, it nevertheless continues her long investigation of prefab genre plots. Egan’s first novel, The Invisible Circus, is a variation on the coming-of-age road novel; Look at Me is an identity thriller; and The Keep is a renovated Gothic tale. Even the apparently unorthodox Goon Squad borrows the fragmented, disordered form of the postmodern novel and plugs in a range of other recognizable genres, from the suburban family drama to the PowerPoint presentation.
Manhattan Beach is a more straightforward blend of noir and historical fiction. Egan began her research for it in 2004, along the way helping the Brooklyn Historical Society to compile an oral history of the Navy Yard. The result is an impressively detailed narrative that is as knowledgeable about wartime diving technology and the US Merchant Marine as it is about banking, nightclub rackets, and disability care, all of which advance the patient plot. But plot always serves several purposes for Egan. While Goon Squad speeds through time, revealing personal and large-scale social transformations in the leaps between chapters, Manhattan Beach, devoted largely to 1942–43, is an exercise in slow narrative. Focusing closely on the war’s turnaround years, the book allows us to watch Anna become an adult, and the United States a superpower as it leaves the Depression behind.
In chronicling these massive changes, Egan is especially interested in those interactions in which a shift or exertion of power occurs. In Goon Squad, a washed-up rocker named Scotty catches a fish in the East River and brings it to the Park Avenue office of his old bandmate Bennie. Bennie’s noblesse oblige appears to give him the upper hand in their exchange until Scotty smiles, revealing his missing teeth. “I saw the shock in Bennie’s face when he saw,” Scotty observes. “And all at once I felt strong, as if some balance had tipped in the room and all of Bennie’s power—the desk, the view, the levitating chair—suddenly belonged to me.”
Manhattan Beach explores a similar dialectic of weakness and strength. The novel’s power negotiations are constant, with the craftiest underlings often getting the better of their bosses, even as larger hierarchies remain intact. Anna leverages the support of one male supervisor after another, eventually becoming the first female diver and the most conventionally heroic of Egan’s heroines. Dexter, meanwhile, navigates his own structures of power: Though a major underground player, he regularly defers to his father-in-law, Arthur Berringer, a retired rear admiral, banker, and personal friend of Franklin Roosevelt, whose ancestors “were wearing top hats to the opera when Dexter’s people were still copulating behind hay bales in the old land.” And Dexter has to be even more careful with his own boss, the shadowy Mr. Q, whose power is “pulsing through ordinary life inaudibly as a dog whistle.”
As is typical of Egan’s fiction, these power players never narrate their own stories, nor do we witness their greatest machinations. Instead, power works almost invisibly in Manhattan Beach. This, Egan seems to suggest, is where its genius lies: It can operate commandingly without being seen. Here’s Dexter taking in a late-night view of the Narrows between Brooklyn and Staten Island: “He’d perceived a new, dynamic density in the darkness. All at once his eyes had organized the mystery and he’d seen it: a procession of immense ships slipping from the harbor at regular intervals like beasts or ghosts. A convoy heading out to sea. There was something profound, uncanny, even, in its muted passage.”
Dexter, who calls his underground organization “the shadow world,” is the perfect figure to appreciate these silent maneuvers. As Egan shows us, organized crime, like organized warfare, is a dizzying web of interconnected activities, some overt and others covert. She makes these connections—between the Mafia and the military, between underground and underwater—with the interpretive ambition of a historian and the artistic license of a novelist. Eddie Kerrigan, who watches the sea as much as Anna and Dexter, discovers in a period of maritime travel that “much of his own speech derived from the sea, from ‘keeled over’ to ‘learning the ropes’ to ‘catching the drift’ to ‘freeloader’ to ‘gripe’ to ‘brace up’ to ‘taken aback’ to ‘leeway’ to ‘low profile’ to ‘the bitter end,’ or the very last link on a chain.” Using such language “made him feel close to something fundamental—a deeper truth whose contours he believed he’d sensed, allegorically, even while on land.”
The sea in Manhattan Beach is, ultimately, a figure of the unconscious for Egan’s characters to dredge. They seek discoveries there, not just about their parents and themselves—not for nothing does Anna share a name with Freud’s youngest daughter and protégée—but also about the realities of power that organize their lives.
The act of diving is part of Anna’s psychic dredging. So are mystery novels, which, for her, “had become trapdoors,” leading to memories of her father and to questions about his disappearance. “Was it dangerous?” she wonders about the shadowy work she often witnessed him doing. “Here was the mystery that seemed now to have been flashing coded signals at Anna from behind every Agatha Christie and Rex Stout and Raymond Chandler she’d read. Becoming aware of this deeper story made it burn through the allegorical surface of whatever plot she was reading until she found herself not reading at all, but holding the book and remembering.”
Manhattan Beach is one such trapdoor. Through a deceptively conventional noir plot, Egan not only uncovers the mystery of Anna’s father; she also makes visible the historical process of consolidating power, both legal and illegal, that has long defined New York City and the United States. Anna dives because she craves a challenge not traditionally granted to women. She also dives because she wants to get beneath the distracting surfaces of civilization, to understand the foundations that undergird her life. New York’s waterways are one such foundation; another is the union of money and the state. Both are hidden in plain sight, and both have the terrible power to crush people. But Egan’s restless New Yorkers see the sea; they are attentive to sublimated truths. As the haunting, shrewd, and immensely pleasurable Manhattan Beach reminds us, the power of perception belongs to everyone—and with it can come the power to demand change.