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A Wake for the City : THE BROOKLYN BOOK OF THE DEAD, By Michael Stephens (Dalkey Archive: $19.95; 228 pp.)

March 20, 1994|RICHARD EDER

It is Jack Coole's wake, but when his 16 children drop in at the Brooklyn funeral home to sit with the remains of the retired customs inspector, there is not a lot of mourning. "He's dead. The old man's dead. Poor old bastard," is the way the word was spread through the long-disused family network, and it is about as close as we come to explicit grief. It is echoed in the corpse-side prayers delivered by the daughters; for example:

Eileen: "Dear God be kind to this mean old fart."

Elizabeth Ann, a nun: "Grant him a touch of salvation because he was a rotten old bastard but he doesn't deserve to burn in hell forever just because of his character flaws about which he was helpless to do anything. Amen."

Michael Stephens uses an Irish and Irish-American literary convention--a comically quarrelsome wake not so much to remember the dead as to settle scores with the living--and he uses others, and very well. But he grasps them as a diver grasps the last rungs of the boat-ladder, preparing to cast off into deep water.

"The Brooklyn Book of the Dead" has a kinship with recent novels by Alice McDermott and Mary Gordon, in that it too treats of change over several generations of a New York Irish-American family. The troublesome, turbulent Coole clan, present and past, is the book's foreground. Yet its deeper theme is the change and passing of urban neighborhoods and communities. That is why--though there are few tears for the frequently mean and violent Jack Coole, and though what we see of his 16 children ranges from an equivalent violence to something more neutral but not especially lovable--Stephens has nevertheless written a book that is both loving and sad.

Dying is not necessarily sad. Profound sadness lies in the death of a place and its culture. Witness the millennial Diaspora lament for Jerusalem, and the great Moorish laments for lost Granada. East New York is tiny, gritty and squalid by comparison. "The Brooklyn Book of the Dead" gets the constriction and squalor, but it too is a lament. It is a mark of Stephens' writing that he voices it without embellishing the roughness or admitting the least jot of sentimentality.

At the start, there is a jumble of voices, interruptions, jokes, insults. Only the five older sons have arrived; given the bitter recollections in the family and the fact that they are almost all out of touch, it is not certain whether anyone else will come. Perhaps the sisters are too angry; perhaps--given some of their shady occupations and associations--the younger brothers are in jail or reposing in concrete shoes at the bottom of Gravesend Bay.

The five oldest are battered enough. There is Leland, a Vietnam veteran who has been in and out of mental hospitals and is now tranquilized on lithium and grossly fat. There is the wired, pugnacious Emmett, a cabdriver, former thug and crack addict: "Emmett . . . of the medallion cab leases, and the rubber hose jobs in back streets around the Gowanus Canal, Emmett of a little muscle."

There is Mickey Mack, a would-be writer grown bald and middle-aged in the mediocrity of failure; the blither Paddy, a painter who restores antiques and grows pot Upstate; and Terry, a dim derelict who lives in an abandoned school bus. His dimness, one of the many rambling recollections suggests, may have come from a childhood game. Leland and Emmett practiced repeated near-strangulation upon him; just as they used Mickey as a punching bag, knocking him out once and reporting to their distracted mother that he was asleep in the garden. "Well, wake him up," she answered. "It's not time to go to bed yet."

When the sisters arrive and, later, the five younger brothers, there are other memories of violence and cruelties. Francis, a drug dealer, recalls his drunken father putting his cat in the freezer; later, the boy tried to set the old man on fire. Brian, a hideously burned fireman, recalls sexually abusing one of his sisters. It is a world of rough struggle. We only get glimpses of the father, but they make a clear portrait of a cold, purposeful man who made his way up to his dockside customs post from which, it is suggested, he was able to do profitable favors for Manhattan's West Side Irish gangs. He supported his family, thrashed his sons and taught them to fight dirty, and pretty much ignored them otherwise.

Rosy, the mother, came from a well-off Irish family, but was thoroughly silenced in the male-dominated household. She only asserted herself once, and it was to encourage Paddy to become a painter. It is one of the book's many quietly managed triumphs--suggesting the many things we are being told without realizing it--that the only real tears shed at the wake are Paddy's, and that it is his mother he is weeping for.

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