The New York City draft riots of 1863 provide an appropriately violent subject for this period melodrama from the historical researcher (for Harry Evans’s The American Century) and novelist (Dreamland, 1999, etc.).
The eponymous setting is a Dantesque slum where the “only sound heard in the street is the buzzing of flies, hovering over the heaps of garbage and the horse carcasses.” That uncomfortably vivid description is offered by Herbert Willis Robinson, a New York Tribune reporter who drifts incognito throughout the Alley and environs, recording the destructive rage of an impoverished (mostly immigrant) populace reacting to the wholesale drafting of workingmen unable to pay their way out of military service. Though Robinson alone speaks as a first-person narrator, he’s one of several major characters whose viewpoints relay the increasingly complex action. Foremost is Ruth Dove, a rag-picker who has survived Ireland’s Potato Famine and the attentions of Dangerous Johnny Dolan, an embittered thief and murderer recently out of prison, and a ticking time bomb aimed in the direction of Ruth (with whom he fled Ireland, and who possesses a “treasure” Johnny wants back), her husband Billy, a runaway slave, and their five biracial children. The story of Ruth’s ordeal during “The Year of Slaughter” (1846) and escape to America is neatly juxtaposed with the entwined present fates and past histories of several other vigorously drawn characters. Prominent among them: the aforementioned Johnny, a vicious destructive force of nature; his long-suffering sister Deirdre O’Kane and her husband Tom, a wounded Civil War veteran; stoical Billy Dove, who labors against insuperable odds to exemplify the simple goodness his name suggests; truculent prostitute Maddy Boyle (who’s “kept”—though not controlled—by Robinson); wily Tammany Hall politico Finn McCool; and numerous other briefly glimpsed figures. Paradise Alley is probably too long, and the grisly, frequently nauseating naturalistic detail is laid on with a trowel. But it’s deftly plotted, fabulously detailed, and never less than absorbing.
An authoritative blend of documentary realism and driving narrative that’s just about irresistible.