DREAMLAND by Kevin Baker


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A sprawling doorstopper, set in turn-of-the-century New York. Baker’s work as chief researcher for Harry Evans’s recent The American Century is on generous display here. The various facets of New York and Coney Island, where the ornate park of the title is located, are scribed in intimate detail: the notorious jail The Tombs, City Hall, the Triangle garment factory, immigrant housing, whiskey bars, and strip joints, all are nicely animated. Meanwhile, dozens of characters stroll through these various locales: Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung visit New York and observe the vulgarity of America; Trick the Dwarf tells of the bizarre and the humane at Dreamland—the dwarfs and the bearded ladies—which is the most familiar world he knows; and Esther, a garment worker alienated from her immigrant family, takes an active role in the labor movement. Also on hand are Gyp the Blood, a small-time criminal; Big Tim, the Tammany politico, plus Kid Twist and Sadie and Clara. Baker is trying to make larger points—for instance, seeing Dreamland as a grotesquely inspired reflection of New York City—but with so many people wandering across the pages of the novel like extras wearing different costumes, the larger ambitions are swallowed by boredom. We are left with authoritatively described, sometimes brutal scenes of corruption, abuse, depravity, manipulation, and coercion that make up a plot whose purpose is cloudy. Second-timer Baker (Sometimes You See it Coming, 1993) does an excellent job of evoking a time and a place, but the novel fails to transcend the genre of Costume Drama, busy as it is with surfaces and slangs, weather and buildings, workbenches and public speeches: the story projects no center, and it’s too easy to forget why it matters at all. (First printing of 100,000; $300,000 ad/promo; Book-of-the-Month Club selection)

Pub Date: March 2nd, 1999
ISBN: 0-06-019309-3
Page count: 512pp
Publisher: HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 1999


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