The City Novel, that infinite sprawling literary megalopolis built by Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevsky and Dreiser, and most recently annexed by Tom Wolfe's urban assault on the rotting boroughs of Nueva York in "The Bonfire of the Vanities," challenges and consumes the ablest writers.
Though Edwin McDowell's New York City novel, "The Lost World," holds much promise at book's start, a complete measure of its contents reveals jerry-built fiction dominated by plasterboard characters, a show of N.Y.C. all surface and sheen, metropolis assembled by numbers, the city and its sons and daughters recast in the written equivalent of artist Red Grooms' style, only lacking Grooms' embracing humor and nimble insights.
The "story" that McDowell, publishing correspondent of the New York Times, rests his metro tale on pertains to beat reporter Alex Shaw and his efforts to help find a lost boy. Shaw, a 46-year-old journalist who briefly served as drama critic for the Free Press but now covers the urban Bermuda Triangle called Times Square, connects with a black reverend from Tennessee. And as developed by McDowell, the reverend has traveled to the nexus of depravity and degradation, T. S., to find his missing grandson, Noah. Others acting out roles in this passionless play include a photographer of the streets, nicknamed Black Bart, as well as a female reporter in her late-20s whom Alex is seeing, and a savvy, street-wise kid nicknamed Dingo. Here, too, convenes a crew of oddballs, weirdos, Broadway cruisers, including a sapped prostitute with needle tracks and a strapping transvestite answering to Celeste.
This collection of down-and-outers, though a tough bunch, assumes a saintly hue under McDowell's direction, by book's end reduced to the sort of miserables de la rue dwelling in the flattest of TV movies.
Then again, such criticism is perhaps superfluous, since McDowell's lamentable low-lifes are summoned to give "The Lost World" texture and tone, much the same way tinted glass and curved concrete is used to suggest color and contour in symmetrically astringent high-rises. Thus McDowell's characters are to people as faux marble columns are to structural architecture. They are ciphers with insignias for souls and tiresome, false argot for thoughts. Indeed, unlike Tom Wolfe's New Yorkers (swaggering street punks, smug Wall Street stocks-and-bonds traders) whose words are unerringly true, McDowell's minions emit faint bleats devoid of life's sting. At one point, McDowell has Shaw launch into a "poetic" comparison between city trees surrounded by safe-keeping steel bars and the youngsters dwelling in Times Square. "Don't you see, it's a perfect metaphor. Here we are, in this relatively safe street, where saplings are well protected to give them a chance to grow to maturity. But less than five minutes away, hundreds of young kids, like those little girls who were jumping rope, have no protection . . . have almost no chance of flourishing." Off McDowell goes, proclaiming banalities as if he were Schliemann coming upon the gold of Troy.
Yet every now and again, McDowell does convey a sharp sense of things. Describing the careful way the reverend chooses his words, McDowell tells us how the preacher was ". . . shunning contractions as if to do otherwise would be to debase the language." And to get across the haunted appearance of a lady of the streets, McDowell's Shaw incisively speaks of "a look the Mona Lisa might have had if it had been painted by Toulouse-Lautrec."
Moreover, when writing of subject matter he knows firsthand, McDowell often succeeds, as in his observations concerning the journalism trade and its practitioners' habits. Shaw, disclosing the way he reads the Free Press, wryly gives us the reporter's perspective on the capstone story in each day's account of events and personalities. "I settled back to finish the newspaper, reading it the way serious journalists do--turning first not to stories about war, or Congress, or malfeasance, but to their own stories, seeing what page they are displayed on and at what length."
Would that the rest of "The Lost World" were so keenly perceived, so knowingly rendered.
Agreed, McDowell's take on New York is geographically narrower than Wolfe's massive reach. Still, he strives to construct in novel form, as did Wolfe, the indomitable forces of the city at work--the public ramming into the private, the press, police, clergy and street populace rubbing each other raw.
The problem in "The Lost World" is that McDowell's world is of the superficial and not the visceral, a town that topples like Leggo. His New York is a city of false observation and indolent reporting, a city fixed at the wrong locus, the wrong address. His is not the real place, not New York City, where the dark tide advances and the lost dream hovers like a spreading fever.