Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan

This is a marvelous novel from 2017. It truly deserves the recognition it has received. From the moment that 11-year-old Anna Kerrigan joins her father Eddie on a winter visit to the Manhattan Beach house of Dexter Styles, a mysterious impresario in a world of gangsters, one is entranced by her early maturity and by their easy father-daughter relationship. And, indeed, we will shortly realize that this novel is about these three characters and their intertwined lives. Eddie needs money for the family. Anna will need to be the family breadwinner. And Styles yearns for social respect from the family he marries into. How and whether they will achieve these various goals drives both the novel’s story and their fates.

Initially, we are introduced to the home life of Anna, father Eddie, mother Agnes, and her crippled sister Lydia. Their life centers around finding support systems for Lydia, whose presence enriches this novel early on. But their life becomes difficult when Eddie loses his money in the Depression and can find work only as a bagman transporting bribes for a corrupt union boss. Desperate, he convinces Styles he can become his “eyes and ears” inside Styles’s nefarious businesses. But it is a mysterious life that he keeps secret from his family. His new income, however, finally enables the family to live a comfortable life and to care for Lydia, even though the family never learns what he does to earn that income.

And then, one day, their father never comes home. He disappears.

This historical novel then jumps ahead nearly a decade and we encounter life on our nation’s home front in the early years of World War II. The Kerrigans live in Brooklyn and we roam its nearby bars and rooming houses. Without a father, Anna knows the family’s survival depends on her. And so she finds a job in the Brooklyn Naval Yard, finds a job once held by men. But she is bored working on an assembly line with older, married women, women with whom she has nothing in common. One day, however, she sees divers working nearby, and, entranced, decides that is what she wants to do. Even if she is a woman. She will help repair the ships that her country needs to fight its war.

The author truly creates that world of divers, the training, the problems of wearing a 200 pound suit, and the initial plunge under water— with Anna all the time fighting to be recognized as an equal in a world of men. This is a main section of this novel, and in her Acknowledgements, one realizes the many dozens of experts the author consulted to create both the Brooklyn of that era and the world of diving that comes across so naturally, especially as Anna must justify her presence to Lieutenant Axel, her trainer. We also realize why Anna’s training regimen is so real, when we learn that author Egan actually put on a 200-pound diving suit as part of her research.

But the world of diving is only the base on which this novel is built, and on which Anna’s character is built. For this is also a world of gangsters, sailors, bankers, and girl friends, all of whom enrich the world that Anna must deal with. And yet, more deeply, this is the intertwined stories of Anna and the two men. Which comes to a head when Anna, intent to find out from Mr. Styles what happened to her father, approaches him, fascinates him, and spends a torrid night with him. Except, when he learns her true reason for seeking him out, he spurns her and will have nothing to do with her.

The author often switches her viewpoint in mid-page among these three characters. And some of these switches are really impressive in literary terms. Perhaps the most brilliant is from Dexter to Eddie when both are at sea, but with each facing a different fate in a different time frame and on a different ocean.

Otherwise, we spend considerable time with Dexter and his activities in the underworld as he yearns for respect, as well as with Anna’s father when Eddie is marooned in an extensive, truly Conradian, scene at sea. In this way, author Egan gets us to identify with and have sympathy for both characters. Yes, even with this gangster, when he becomes the romantic, mysterious character that Anna sees, and when we also learn he has dreams of going legitimate. Plus, the author never confronts us with his evil deeds.

And, eventually, after we learn the presumed fates of Dexter and Eddie, we return to the story of Anna. She learns she is pregnant. From that torrid night. And does not know what to do. Have the baby or not? Keep the baby or not? It is an old-fashioned literary development, but it works. The rest of the novel presents her decision, and resolves the many relationships she has developed within her family and with her fellow workers.

This novel is further enriched by the working world the author creates, whether it is at the shipyard, in the businesslike world of the gangster dens, or as a crewman at sea. The prejudice against the women of that era is particularly real, as Anna invades a world that the male divers claim as their own. Lieutenant Axel, as her lead trainer, is particularly prejudiced, but when she proves herself worthy, he begins praising her work to shame the other men he is working with. It is a prejudice against women that will become even more blatant when Anna discovers she is about to bear an illegitimate child.

This has been called an old-fashioned novel, especially compared to Goon Squad, but that is precisely why I enjoyed it. It captures a family. It captures an historical time and the prejudices that women of that era faced. It captures the power of the sea, both the power that engulfs one below the surface and its seemingly endless power when one is nearly alone on its vast expanse. And it introduces three struggling people, separates them, then brings them back together and unites their fates—people, moreover, we can identify with, since all are striving for something positive in their lives.

Egan has said she has considered writing a sequel, which would take Anna into the 1960s, an era of revolution and protest that Egan wishes she herself had experienced. But one wonders if such a work could equal the intensity of this work. Particularly with Anna here struggling alone, depending only upon herself. (January, 2019)

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand

This 2010 work is a remarkable book. It is the story of Louis Zamperini, a track star whom I do recall from my youth, although not as a star, much less the first potential four-minute miler. But the perseverance he developed from track does lead to his survival during his wartime experiences, and those experiences do justify both his life and this tremendous book.

Hillenbrand begins by describing Zamperini as a precocious brat in his youth, always stealing, brawling, and deceiving both adults and friends. But this toughness and independence would, as Hillenbrand describes, help him survive a crash landing at sea, a month and a half in a foundering pontoon lifeboat, and two and a half years of horrendous treatment by the Japanese as a prisoner of war.

How Zamperini survived is brilliantly told, the longest section being given to his story as a POW in Japan—and how he and his friends survived the cruelty of their captors, especially a brutal guard they called the Bird, as well as the horrendous physical conditions at the camps. The dominance of this section is no doubt due not only to the length of this experience but to the accompanying stories of the many military men who were with him at the camps and whom the author tracked down. Whereas only two men survived the ditching in the Pacific, and that physical trial lasted 47 days.

Equally heart-rending are the repercussions Zamperini endured after the war, the drinking, the violent temper, and the abusiveness that led his wife to threaten divorce. This was certainly PTSD before it was known as that, but it is known today and makes this book all the more powerful. What is lacking, however, is an effective portrayal of the redemption referred to in the volume’s subtitle. Yes, it may have originated with sermons by Billy Graham, but the author does not describe how our hero converted to being a born-again Christian, nor his subsequent activity as a Christian evangelist.

I think this element is missing because this conversion from hatred to forgiveness and from a closed mind to being open about his experiences, happened inside his mind, even inside his soul, and that perspective is something either the author or Zamperini was not interested in discussing.

Indeed, when we get inside Zamperini in this work, it concerns his thinking about the situation at hand, whether running a four-minute mile, surviving a crash, or enduring the trials of the camp. But there is nothing about the faith he was raised in, or the life philosophy that these horrible events might have inspired. Everything we witness, his trials and his degradation, as well as those of others, are explored in their own terms. That is, on the surface level of our existence. Or was Zamperini perhaps reluctant to discuss leaving his Catholic upbringing for the Christian evangelists?

That is, his final redemption appears to exist much further inside this person that Hillenbrand wishes to portray. Indeed, she leaves him looking deep into a bible, and then a year later returning to Japan to forgive his prison guard tormentors. Both are the actions of a Christian. But what happened inside Zamperini in those intervening 12 months to prompt this change and his return to Japan? This, I believe, is the true final chapter in this story of Louis Zamperini. And we never know it. Was Zamperini incapable of explaining his internal life? Or had Hillenbrand no interest in it? Instead, she condenses the remaining years of his life, as he reaches ninety, as well as the remaining years of a few of his POW companions. Which left me unsatisfied.

For this is the story of a man who was unbroken during his wartime experiences, then was broken by the after effects when he returned home, and finally pulled himself together and became a contributing member of society. But we do not experience that final development. In the acknowledgments, Hillenbrand mentions her poor health, and one wonders if that might have forced her to cut off the Zamperini story earlier than she might otherwise have done. I have also read elsewhere that she suffers from a serious illness.

During the weeks on a fragile craft that he shared with two others, during that frightening time in the middle of the Pacific, with its brilliant description of circling sharks and an angry sea, Zamperini promised God that if he survived he “would serve you forever.” And in his frightening postwar decline, a Billy Graham sermon prompts him to recalls this. But it comes off as a sidelight in Hillenbrand’s telling, whereas I believe it must have been central to Zamperini’s recognition of his human and spiritual failings at that point. And it is where the author has shortchanged the reader.

I am afraid I am harping on one chapter in an otherwise brilliant tale, a tale of courage and perseverance, of suffering and the denial of despair, of stubbornness and clever subterfuge. But the reference to survival and resilience in the subtitle is followed by the word, redemption. And unlike survival and resilience, that word is not explored or dramatized. Thus, for me, there is no true climax to this story. Zamperini descends into the hell of postwar violence and drunkenness, and then is mysteriously resurrected.

This version may be valid in describing the life of Christ, but this is the life of a human being struggling on his own. There is no God in his life, at least in this telling of his life. And, needless to say, I think there should be, at least be a spiritual element. Zamperini’s attendance at Billy Graham rallies is not enough. We need to see his internal reactions to Graham’s message.

What was remarkable about this book is that each time I returned to it, I immediately remembered both the entire Zamperini story to date and where I had left off. This rarely happens to me, and I attribute it to Hillenbrand’s sterling craft. She is a magnificent story-teller. At least, when it comes to surface events. Here, these are the crash, the loneliness in an angry sea, and the horror and inhumanity of the wartime Japanese prison camps. But the word “unbroken” also refers to our hero’s interior life. And here, the interior life is confined to his reactions to the brutality he faced. Whereas, I would claim it also refers to his spiritual resources that extend beyond those brutal experiences and should well include his interpretation of life’s meaning, particularly of his own life’s meaning. (April, 2016)