by Kevin Baker

Published by HarperCollins

519 pages, 1999








Over the Big Top

Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce


When writing a novel set amongst New York's Coney Island amusement parks during the first decade of the 20th century, an author's greatest challenge may be to make the features and follies of those places seem credible. The whole enterprise sounds like fiction nowadays. And not always pleasant fiction, either.

A "perpetual circus" is how one historian described Coney Island at its height. The area hosted a trio of great playgrounds -- Steeplechase, Luna Park, and Dreamland -- each striving to be more extravagant and exciting than its neighbor, the three together forming a beachside city of lights, so bright that nighttime ship passengers approaching Manhattan from far off in the Atlantic were convinced that New York City was burning to the ground. Most outrageous of all was Dreamland, with its re-enactment of the Fall of Pompeii; simulated submarine excursions; a Venetian Doge's Palace with gondola rides; an "Infant Incubator," where prematurely born babies were nursed out of danger; and fires staged twice daily in tenement house mock-ups, just so poorer visitors to the island could witness familiar horrors at a safe remove. Giving Dreamland a semblance of reality means defying its most basic goal, which was to appear beyond belief.

Kevin Baker has done as fine a job as any author I know of in capturing that park's garish excesses in print and superimposing upon them a comparably compelling and complex tale. In Dreamland, Coney Island revels in providing some escape for Gotham's worldly or plain weary masses, a spot nuzzled by ocean breezes, where competing wonders divert the eyes and the fragrances of sawdust and roasting corn fill the nose. Lest you become nostalgic, though, there's also a nightmarish aspect to Dreamland. Demonic dwarfs torment park-goers with cattle prods to entertain other passersby. Men paw hungrily at women's breasts on carousels. A new roller coaster careens off its track, killing passengers -- only to draw even larger crowds thereafter, folks attracted by the keen risk of death. The famous Tin Elephant Hotel, erected as a novelty for respectable tourists, becomes a house of prostitution, echoing at all hours with the noise of a ribald commerce. Baker's description of a late-night foray to the Tin Elephant is among his most vivid:

The whores were still up, washing themselves in their room basins. We could hear them calling, each to each, as we climbed the winding, spiral staircase; lovely, bright voices, twittering like songbirds, happy to be at the end of the night. Though it was at this hour, too, that they tended to kill themselves, when all the sensation of the early evening -- the promise of the brightly lit parlor, and the piano music downstairs and the smell of a first, freshly poured beer -- had metamorphosed into nothing more than one grunting, sweaty, two-hundred-fifty-pound brush salesman. One of the songbirds' voices would be missing, and they would find her in her room, hung with her own kimono sash or doused with opium.

However, this sprawling book accomplishes much more than just to re-create crazy, kinetic Coney (circa 1910) for a modern audience. Dreamland is a tight ball of yarns -- humorous, romantic, and violent -- that occur not only in the amusement park, but around Manhattan's Lower East Side, a polyglottish province of mobsters, shadowy bars, opium dens, crooked politicians, and impoverished immigrants. It's there, during a dog-and-rat fight, that an Eastern European gangster called Kid Twist clubs a rival hood, Gyp the Blood, before the latter can murder a newsboy. Only the rescued urchin turns out to be Trick the Dwarf, a carnival barker and self-proclaimed mayor of Dreamland's extensive midget city, who repays the Kid by giving him asylum in one of the Tin Elephant's ass-end guest rooms. While in hiding, the Kid meets and eventually falls in love with Esther Abramowitz, a sewing machine operator who (much to his distress) turns out to be Gyp the Blood's sister.

And that's merely the spine of Baker's story. Onto it he has grafted a series of secondary and revealing plots, including Trick the Dwarf's courting of a miniature beauty who thinks she's the Empress of Mexico; a police corruption scandal that threatens New York's Tammany Hall political empire; the efforts of a sentimental pol, Big Tim Sullivan, to maintain his grasp on power while acceding to the demands of upper-class reformers such as Frances Perkins; a journey to Coney Island by psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung; and, most satisfying of all, Esther's maturation from a lowly shopworker, hounded by her bitter Jewish father, into a self-confident labor organizer.

Dreamland's juxtaposition of Coney Island against the Lower East Side -- the high life vs. the low -- is served well by the author's attention to period details. Kevin Baker, it turns out, worked as chief historical researcher for The American Century (1998), by Harold Evans, a role that schooled him in the dress styles, songs, and slang that help give this novel verisimilitude. In these pages, "white paper badges of mourning" flutter from tenement doorways. Gents strut about with "pomaded" hair, and scenes that might have been given short shrift by a writer less interested in the multiple textures of an early-20th-century urban existence are explored here in depth. One particularly telling passage, in which Big Tim gazes contemplatively upon an East River pier, reminds readers how much harsher times were 90 years ago:

[H]e had seen that same dark pier... just the week before, stacked high with children's coffins from the Charity Commission.... They died in droves in the summer, from the measles and the diphtheria, and the whooping cough and the consumption. They died from cholera, and polio, and scarlet fever -- and from falling off streetcars, and out of windows, and out-and-out starvation. Worst of all were the floaters -- the unclaimed children who came floating up in the East River when the weather got warm, bloated and disfigured. To lie for weeks and months, unclaimed in the city morgue --

There were never enough parents who could pay -- for all the seventeen-cent insurance policies the undertakers and the scam artists sold door-to-door. They brought the bodies to the pier, where they could be loaded without delay or ceremony, hauled up to the potter's field on Hart's Island.... All those tiny coffins, piled up casually there by the longshoremen, awaiting their meager contents.

Baker (as he concedes in an afterword) is less concerned about accurately rendering the chronology of history, manipulating some facts for maximum dramatic effect. For instance, by 1910, the daily burnings of a tenement at Dreamland had been replaced by a simulation of San Francisco's 1906 earthquake and fire. Although George B. McClellan, "son of the famous Civil War flop of the same name," appears in this tale as mayor of New York, he'd actually been voted out of City Hall years before. And, oddly, while the author painstakingly re-creates the surreal electrocution of a supposedly rogue elephant (with Thomas Edison presiding), he changes its name from Topsy to "Lucy."

But who couldn't forgive a bit of fantasy in a book about a place where fantasy ruled? Dreamland, rich with sensual imagery, rife with well-imagined characters, and elegantly written, is a fun-ride of a story: You never know what's going to happen next. And the end comes too soon. | May 1999


J. KINGSTON PIERCE is the senior editor of January Magazine.