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New York stories

Ghost Town Tales of Manhattan Then and Now Patrick McGrath Bloomsbury: 248 pp., $16.95

November 20, 2005|Sylvia Brownrigg | Sylvia Brownrigg is the author, most recently, of "Pages for You." Her novel "The Delivery Room" will be released next year.

ONE of transatlantic publisher Bloomsbury's ingenious contributions to the burgeoning field of travel literature is the "Writer and the City" series, which inspired Edmund White to take on the role of flaneur through Paris, brought Peter Carey back to his native Australia for his "Wildly Distorted Account" of a month in Sydney and encouraged David Leavitt to produce a literary and social history of Florence. The editors must have wondered who would be best, out of a crowded field, to tackle New York.

The choice of Patrick McGrath suggests that a darker view of the great city was what they had in mind. McGrath, a Londoner who now lives in New York, is the author of fictions generally written in the key of Poe: stories that interweave madness, murder and other sinister elements of the human heart. (His novels "Spider" and "Asylum" have been made into powerful films.) It is often noted that McGrath has such territory in his blood, having grown up in the shadow of Broadmoor, Britain's infamous hospital for the criminally insane, where his father worked as medical superintendent.

In McGrath's haunted "Ghost Town," Manhattan is a city built on blood and brutality and the murders, chronicled and not, of various of its inhabitants. Perhaps, after the events of 9/11, morbidity is all the more easily associated with New York: If the World Trade Center's shiny magnitudes represented American optimism, aggression and achievement, the towers' destruction was an essential reminder of the deaths that necessarily come before, and after, such bold constructions.

McGrath presents three fictional tales of New Yorkers brought low by the passions that drive them. His first, "The Year of the Gibbet," interweaves two deadly periods in the city's history, the time of the Revolutionary War and the year 1832, when the city was visited by devastating disease. ("The streets are silent but for the faint wailing of the newly bereaved and the rumbling wheels of the melancholy death-carts hauling their loads to Potter's Field.") In an especially Poe-like framing device, the narrator sits in his room, fondling his mother's skull and awaiting the knock of cholera at his door, as he writes the tale of his mother's passionate work for the American rebels in the Revolutionary War and her eventual capture (in which he believes he had a guilty hand) by the heartless British redcoats.

McGrath's details of life in New York, on its way from Colonial port to American center of commerce, are wonderfully vivid, with the city's burning in 1776 -- "The night was pierced by the screams of women, and windblown embers and scraps of burning cloth and paper floated about me in the darkness" -- prefiguring the ash that would move through Lower Manhattan's streets again in 2001. McGrath's imaginative setting gives vibrant recognition to those Americans of the Revolutionary period, and his portrayal of the fearless mother, using her children as aides and camouflage as she passes messages between key rebel figures, is affecting, if idealized. (She never wavers, even with the noose around her neck, in her defiance of and contempt for the British.)

The second story, "Julius," is also narrated from a distance: a woman in 1950 casting her gaze back to the Civil War, a time when her grandmother's family, the Van Horns (now reduced to "shabby gentility"), were in ascendancy, presided over by the powerful, despotic figure of widower Noah van Horn. The family consists of three pampered daughters and one effete son, Julius, a boy far too sensitive to take on his father's mantle as commercial magnate. Here McGrath brings gothic elements into play, as young Julius' passion to become a painter leads quickly into a passion for a painter's model (of low birth, of course, and highly unsuitable) and thence, by a series of turns, to violence, repression and madness.

McGrath has fun with the energy and vigor of Noah van Horn and his wicked protege and son-in-law Max Rinder, describing this intensely capitalist period of the city's development, when "all over New York buildings were going up, others coming down, some no more than ten years old, but in this impatient town where nothing ever has a chance to decay, ten years was practically an eternity." (One is reminded here of Steven Millhauser's exuberant New York novel, "Martin Dressler.") In fact, McGrath seems more at ease with Noah's fortunes than with the proper subject of his story, Julius' disintegration and eventual rehabilitation and various revelations of long-closeted family secrets.

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