A vision of New York as a battleground, both literal and figurative, links three spirited stories from a master of sophisticated melodrama (Port Mungo, 2004, etc.).
“The Year of the Gibbet” is told from the perspective of a tormented man named Edmund. Writing his memoir in 1832, shortly before succumbing to cholera, he looks back to 1776, when the British fleet occupied New York harbor, Manhattan was under martial law and Washington’s demoralized army was encamped in New Jersey. Edmund’s account pays tribute to his gallant, fearless mother, a working-class revolutionary who traveled as a courier between Washington’s army and a sea captain plotting against the Brits, taking little Edmund with her. The boy’s confusion under interrogation led to his mother’s arrest, court martial and death by hanging; Edmund, haunted by his mother’s ghost, never forgives himself. McGrath paints with a broad brush here, but with sufficient intensity to keep readers turning the pages. The same is true of “Ground Zero,” his over-the-top but compelling final story. Here the battleground is a psychiatrist’s office. The therapist/narrator is fighting for the soul of her patient Danny, who has become ensnared by Asian-American prostitute Kim in the wake of 9/11. The evil of the terrorist assault is replicated in Kim’s evil sex games, previously inflicted on a lover who died during the attack. (She’s seen his ghost.) In “Julius,” the triptych’s middle piece, the domestic battle is joined when rich, 19th-century merchant Noah van Horn refuses to allow his only son Julius to marry a poor Irish artist’s model. Ruthless second-in-command Max Rinder, who sees the city “as a lawless territory where ferocity, speed and cunning counted most,” arranges the Irish girl’s disappearance. Julius has a breakdown and is institutionalized. McGrath’s range makes this dense, twisty tale the book’s most involving.
Strange bedfellows, but good company.