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To live and buy in New York

Ellington Boulevard A Novel in A-Flat; Adam Langer; Spiegel & Grau: 336 pp., $24.95

January 20, 2008|Carol Anshaw | Carol Anshaw is the author of the novels "Aquamarine," "Seven Moves" and "Lucky in the Corner."

Buying an apartment in Manhattan, where it would appear that quite a number of people want to live, often becomes a drama flush with too much money, overwrought emotions and class warfare. Perfect material for either tragedy or farce. Adam Langer has taken the latter route in this novel, whose subject is the sale of one particular apartment -- 64 Ellington Blvd., No. 2B -- on the far Upper West Side.

The story opens on the apartment's longtime but leaseless tenant, Ike Morphy, a clarinet player recently departed from a jazz group called the Funkshuns. Ike has spent the last months in Chicago at his dying mother's bedside, and he returns to New York to find that his benevolent landlord has died, leaving matters in the hands of his more ruthless son, who is in the process of selling 2B out from under Ike. Ike and the potential buyers -- Rebecca and Darrell -- quickly become action figures in the larger game of Urban Gentrification, along with the Seller, the Broker, the Buyer's Husband's Lover, the Tenant's Dog and so on, down to the pigeons on the apartment's window ledge, who have troubles of their own.

By making Rebecca an editor at a prestigious magazine, Darrell a perennial grad student, his lover Jane a fiction writer and Josh, the real estate broker, an aspiring actor-playwright, Langer has set himself up to take potshots at the subcultures of real estate, academe, book publishing and magazines. Sometimes his aim is hilariously accurate. For instance, Darrell. As a teacher, he lectures from CliffsNotes; as a student, he clings to the mast of a sinking thesis.

He spends his days in the sort of deep avoidance offered by Google, tormenting himself by looking up the accomplishments of others by the time they were his age, 31. "F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote 'The Great Gatsby' . . . Orson Welles made 'Citizen Kane' . . . Walt Disney created Mickey Mouse . . . Janis Joplin was dead . . . the Beatles had already broken up; Andrew Cunanan had already killed three people." Darrell also looks himself up on RateYourTeachingAssistants.net, and it's a dismal moment when "the red pepper near his name signifying that he was a 'hottie' has been replaced by a green frownie face; a new review authored by someone calling himself 'C.S.' has been posted: 'Avoid this slacker like the plague.' "

Too often, though, the skewer Langer wields is a blunt one, his targets already sagging from eons of being poked at. Jane's writing workshop, for instance, is headed by a woman named Faith Trinkelman, author of "numerous writing memoirs, including 'Faith-Based Writing,' 'Take It on Faith,' and 'Write On, Sistah!' " Ike's old band is famous for its hits "Can't We Funk Jus' a Lil' Bit?" and "Won't Funk U 'Less U Beg." Chloe Linton, Rebecca's boss at a literary journal, is considering a move to "Sloppy Seconds, a cooking magazine for divorcees." At the American Standard, Rebecca edits capsule book reviews that are "riddled with typos ('Zimmerman places an arm around her waste'), facile literary references ('Like Vonnegut, Hemingway, and Kerouac before her, Trinkelman's surname bears three syllables') and mixed metaphors ('In more sure-footed hands, this novel might have made for a splendiferously fragrant stew, shining a beacon onto the immigrant condition, but it fails to even pay lip service to the elephant in the room')."

The book's plot and many subplots are similarly broad stroke, with all the improbable matches and coincidences that are the mainstays of farce. Hewing to this form, Langer keeps the action hopping, with characters popping out of this door, hurtling through that window. His enthusiasm never flags. Every page holds evidence of a writer having tons of fun, just sometimes a bit more fun than the reader.

Where Langer is at his best is in forgiving his characters their failures and frailties. His heroes win out in the end, but his villains lose little. And they are imperfect in their villainy. Their dark side is a middle shade of gray. Langer consigns none of them to anything worse than this or that small, private purgatory, which usually turns out to be a more comfortable fit than the demanding world of their dreams.

Josh, for instance, is the sort of broker who "greases supers, scours the daily papers for obituaries, swoops down upon recent crime victims -- if living in the city is getting too tough for them, he says, now would be a perfect time to sell." In the end, all he loses is a nonexistent career on the stage in favor of a high-paying job in real estate.

Perhaps the real protagonist of "Ellington Boulevard" is Manhattan. Langer's first novel, "Crossing California," was steeped in the West Rogers Park neighborhood on the north side of Chicago, and this book pays equal homage to the Manhattan Valley neighborhood of New York City:

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