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Burn, baby, burn

Paradise Alley, A Novel, by Kevin Baker, HarperCollins: 676 pp., $26.95

October 13, 2002|Adam Bresnick | Adam Bresnick writes for several publications, including the Times (London) Literary Supplement.

On July 1, 1863, Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia fought the Union's Army of the Potomac on the fields near Gettysburg, Pa., in one of the first major Civil War battles to be contested on Northern soil. Most of the Union Army's soldiers hailing from New York City were sent to the front, leaving the teeming city to be defended by about 1,000 National Guardsmen, 200 members of the Invalid Corps and 700 sailors from the Navy yard, as well as the Metropolitan police.

While this decision no doubt helped the Union's cause at Gettysburg, it worsened an already precarious situation in a city seething with anti-war sentiment in the wake of the nation's first Conscription Act, which had taken effect four months earlier. Many recently arrived Europeans had come to New York to flee the conflicts of the Old Country, and when these immigrants were called upon to fight and die in what they perceived to be a war to defend the rights of the American Negro, they were enraged.

But the Conscription Act allowed those with a disposable $300--close to an average worker's yearly salary--to buy their way out of the draft, thus ensuring the absence of all but the most idealistic members of the middle and upper classes from the bloody battlefield of Gettysburg. This piqued the rage of New York's working class, which rightly saw that it would bear the brunt of the act.

On July 11, a Saturday, 1,236 names were chosen at random; by Monday, New York City had exploded in what would turn out to be one of the worst riots in American history, a three-day proletarian potlatch of 70,000 rioters that left about 100 people dead and caused more than a million dollars in property damage.

Kevin Baker's ambitious historical novel, "Paradise Alley," recounts the terrifying story of New York's Draft Riots as lived by a cast of fictional characters, most of whom hail from Ireland and all of whom have had lives filled with appalling violence and disruption. The chief historical researcher for Harold Evans' bestselling "The American Century" and author of the acclaimed "Dreamland," a novel of the golden era of Coney Island, Baker has carried out his research with extraordinary dedication, familiarizing himself with every imaginable aspect of the Draft Riots. His vivid imagination and forceful prose make the mayhem of these three days unusually palpable.

Having been awakened from our 1990s idyll of endless prosperity and security by the terrorism of Sept. 11, it is bracing to read of another awful moment in New York's history, a vertiginous time in which it appeared that the city was on the brink of being overrun by violence and chaos.

Ruth Dove is a ragpicker from Paradise Alley, a street of tenements in the 4th Ward of New York City populated by recently arrived Irish and Jews. Ruth fled the potato famine in the company of Dangerous Johnny Dolan, a wildly sadistic lowlife who had the grit to force his way through the dying Irish countryside, eating anything he could lay his destructive hands on and wreaking havoc along the way.

Baker flashes back to the "Year of Slaughter" in lacerating prose that conveys the sheer horror of the starvation with visceral clarity. Eschewing euphemism and metaphor, he achieves a hallucinatory realism packed with sensory detail, demonstrating why historical fiction is able to trump conventional historiography. No straightforward account of the famine I have read is as grisly as the literary meal Baker serves up.

Among the various characters in the novel are Billy Dove, an escaped slave who marries Ruth after Johnny Dolan leaves for the West Coast; the prostitute and hot-corn vendor Maddy Boyle; her lover and protector Herbert Willis Robinson, a reporter for the New York Tribune; Finn McCool, a Tammany ward operative and fireman; and Horace Greeley, the real-life editor and publisher of the New York Tribune.

These characters speak the argot of the day, and while no doubt their language is somewhat stylized, Baker never lets it become too mannered. Alternating between first-person and third-person narrative and seamlessly switching historical frames, Baker offers a canvas of New York City immigrant life in the mid-19th century, as well as a visceral portrait of the city in turmoil during the Draft Riots.

The book's literary naturalistic methodology evokes the writings of Emile Zola, since Baker's painstaking research has allowed him to develop an encyclopedic knowledge of his chosen topic, but the novel's first-person sections have a somewhat experimental feel, complicating the book's psychology. Baker allows each character to function as what John Dos Passos called a "camera eye," recording the violence of the events directly, without the distance of conventional authorial omniscience.

Plot as such is not the book's strong suit, for while Baker has skillfully woven the strands of his narrative into a coherent tale of rioting New York, the story does not offer a great deal in the way of suspense or psychological transformation. Indeed, the characters of "Paradise Alley" are perhaps a bit too static, given the magnitude of the events in which they participate. Still, when Baker is at his best, he brings home the violence of the Draft Riots with remorseless vitality. In its presentation of the slow burning and mutilation of Col. O'Brien of the 11th Volunteers by a mob of angry Irishwomen, its account of the lynching of anonymous blacks by draft resisters and its implacable depiction of the squalor of tenement life, "Paradise Alley" reveals the terror and violence of the immigrant experience in 19th century New York.

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