REVIEW: Jennifer Egan's 'Manhattan Beach' is an 'Astounding Eye-Opener'

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

Scribner, 448 pp.

By Robert Allen Papinchak

Jennifer Egan has done it again. In 2010, she won the Pulitzer Prize for the dauntingly unique A Visit From the Goon Squad. This time, with only three months to go in 2017, she has written what is probably the most strikingly original novel of the year. Manhattan Beach is an astounding eye-opener.

On the surface, it appears to be a traditionally written historical novel about the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s with crime, deceit, and vengeance at its core. But the novel is about anything but surfaces. It’s a novel of and about depths. Depths of relationships, depths of despair, and actual watery depths. Its background is the war abroad; its foreground is the war at home.

Manhattan Beach seems to be a simple story of an unconventional love triangle. But like the whole of the novel this is no ordinary triangle. There is a father, a daughter, and a nefarious New York gangster boss. Their stories are often told in separate narratives until Egan intertwines the three of them in a blockbuster of an ending.

From the start, the story of the father, Eddie Kerrigan, his daughter, Anna, and the criminally inspired Dexter Styles is a set up for disaster. They are motivated by the triumvirate of temptation: money, sex, and power. Eddie needs money; Anna needs a life of her own; Styles needs power. All of them achieve their goals, but with serious consequences.

The novel begins in Brooklyn in the winter of 1934. Thirty-six-year old Eddie is married with two daughters—Anna, and her physically challenged younger sister, Lydia. Eddie needs money to buy a special chair for Lydia. He is weary of working as a bagman for an unscrupulous local union official.  Eddie sees Styles, a nightclub owner with ties to the mob, as his way out and the source of the funds he needs. Eddie, we are told, prefers “danger over sorrow every time.”  This penchant for danger and disaster will travel around the world with Eddie.

When Eddie takes 11-year-old Anna to Styles’s luxurious mansion at the edge of Manhattan Beach, she is exposed for the first time to an elegant lifestyle that provokes pangs of envy.  Styles’s 8-year-old daughter owns a Flossie Flirt doll that Anna covets. His twin sons have an electric train set that triggers in Anna something beyond envy. She realizes that she “could feel the logic of mechanical parts in her fingertips” of a set of “disjointed tracks.” She “fastened the piece that was vexing the boys,” unknowingly discovering a skill set that would propel her into a promising future.

Once Egan establishes the providential initial meeting of the key protagonists, the novel jumps forward a decade to find that Eddie disappeared five years ago and Anna is employed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The Navy Yard joins Manhattan Beach as the novel’s other geographical focus.  It’s there that Anna comes into her own. Her skill for feeling small objects leads her to a job “measuring and inspecting parts” for battleships, most notably the frigate Missouri. Anna is among the burgeoning group of women who will soon fill jobs vacated by men who have gone to war. She quickly finds sexism and misogyny in the male-dominated environment. Bored by the tediousness of her occupation she soon discovers the job she thinks she is best suited for, one that is controlled by men. She wants to be a diver and break the watery ceiling.

This decision leads to two of the most riveting sequences in the novel. Weighing “over a hundred pounds,” Anna dons a diving outfit that weighs well over two hundred pounds. She has to maneuver in 35 lb. shoes and learn to breathe the “humid metallic smell” of a brass helmet.  Even though she passes her first test, she is told “’diving was never a possibility’” for her or any other woman. “Those are the facts.” Later, however, Anna changes the facts in a heart-stopping scene in which she survives a salvage operation when “the weight of the [diving] dress [could] hurtle her straight to the bottom of the bay.”

Anna’s father and Styles endure their own threats to survival. Eddie’s whereabouts remain unknown for a major part of the novel. His time in the merchant marines involves an encounter with a U-boat that calls up the heroics of Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat.” In New York City, Styles bleeds corruption as he engages in a series of criminal underground confrontations.

Egan’s command of period details of 1930s and 1940s New York are impeccable. More than 10 years of research at the New York Public Library, the Brooklyn Historical Society, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard, bolstered by firsthand accounts of wartime experiences from those who were there add rich dimension to other characters and events in the novel.  Manhattan nightclubs sparkle with champagne and chandeliers and dazzle with showgirls and gangsters. Whether it’s the “scuttling of the French fleet in Toulon” or the mention of the “horrific conflagration [at] the Cocoanut Grove,” Egan knows the exact moment when atmospheric specifics are needed.

Manhattan Beach is at times surprising. It provides a reading experience like no other. It does not disappoint. Ultimately, its finest achievement is that it proves irrefutably that a woman’s place is in the work place – or wherever it is that she wants to be. 

Robert Allen Papinchak has reviewed a range of fiction in newspapers, magazines, and journals, including the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Seattle Times, USA Today, People, The Writer, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, the New York Journal of Books, and others. He is the author of Sherwood Anderson: A Study of the Short Fiction.