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Filling in the blank

The Newsboys' Lodging-House or the Confessions of William James A Novel Jon Boorstin Penguin: 374 pp., $14 paper

June 06, 2004|Nick Owchar | Nick Owchar is acting deputy editor of Book Review.

Keepers of diaries, take note: Be mindful of what a novelist may make one day of any pages torn out to hide an awkward memory. In "The Newsboys' Lodging-House or the Confessions of William James," Jon Boorstin unfolds an engrossing tale predicated on a tantalizing gap in the pages of James' diary -- pages cleanly cut away with a knife that corresponded to a period of severe depression he experienced at 30 after graduating from medical school.

Though biographers say that those missing pages conceal only James' convalescence in the family house, Boorstin has imagined something richer. What if James, mentally and physically exhausted, wracked with spiritual doubts that would one day blossom into "The Varieties of Religious Experience," had shunned doctors' advice to cure himself, to regain his belief in man's essential goodness on his own? What would he do? Where would he go?

Spurred on by Horatio Alger's rags-to-riches stories, Boorstin's James sets out not for a faraway spa in Bad Teplitz but to the murky, gaslit streets of New York City in 1872, when a steak cost 6 cents and the colorful Bowery theaters lured the city's waifs with their vulgar siren songs. There James encounters Alger's street urchins -- not to mention Alger himself -- and witnesses daily battles for survival that he believes might help him to overcome his existential dilemma.

"If some ineffable force propelled our species toward a better world, then I should find it working its mysterious ways among these boys," he explains. "I allowed myself a prayer that I might find it. I refused to contemplate what should become of me if I did not."

Quickly such a hypothesis is lost in the bustle of a lodging house full of newsboys, who hawk papers all day for room and grub. James teaches drawing to talented 9-year-old Jemmie, a scrappy youth whose artistic abilities seem matched by his love of the city's seedy nightlife. Jemmie's character contains a familiar duality -- the pure vs. the profane -- and James soon finds himself competing for the lad's future against Dannie, a felonious older boy who involves Jemmie in plots leading to blackmail and murder.

Many novelists have written on the duel for an innocent's soul (including James' brother Henry, whose "The Turn of the Screw" gives this a supernatural turn). But novelist Boorstin ("Pay or Play") has invigorated that well-worn story line with a deep affection for Old New York (helped, he says in a note, by a 4-by-6-foot map of the city published in 1879) that results in scenes etched with the smoky bronze color of an old photograph. One also senses his admiration for William James in every sentence, enabling him to pull off such phrases as "my paralysis eased sufficiently that I might force my orbicularis palpebrarum to lift my eyelids" like an actor who has made a role his own.

What finally happens to Jemmie and James cuts to the core of American identity, the idea we have of ourselves as a nation of self-made people. "The hard choices, choices which teach us and define us," James says, "are those which exact their cost on others. I was a man of thirty before New York forced upon me those choices. Jemmie was only a boy of nine.... "

Is Jemmie what James might have been had he not been born into privilege? Boorstin could have simply made his central character a sensitive, educated man and that would have been enough; but to make him William James, the knight of American pragmatism, best underscores the conflict between contemplation and action upon which this novel is grounded. Boorstin's story suggests that the worlds of action and thought are not so completely sealed off, and it's thrilling to find William James bridging them in a quest for salvation. *

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