On Coney Island with Kevin Baker, in search of the American Dream
So far as we know, however, "Gyp the Blood" was not whacked on the head with a shovel by "Kid Twist" just as he was about to break "Trick the Dwarf"'s back in a dingy dive in lower Manhattan (thus setting the well-oiled wheels of our story in motion). Nor did he have a sister named Esther who worked at the infamous sweatshop, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Esther organized the women of the needle trades and fell in love with "Kid Twist" at Dreamland, the fantastical Coney Island amusement park that burned to the ground in 1911. No, the exhilarating loops and turns of plot that make Kevin Baker's historical novel so entertaining are inventions of the author's own imagination.
"One of the interesting dilemmas of historical fiction," Baker says during a call to his home in New York, "is how much room a writer has to make things up. I think you can create composite characters and change chronologies just as long as you get the essence of the thing right. That's pretty much the trick in any kind of fiction -- to reach for that greater truth."
One of the truths Baker reaches for in Dreamland is the emotional complexity of the immigrant experience in America. "We have this image now that everybody came here and suffered a little but worked hard and became great successes. In fact, this was a generations-long struggle. Even when immigrants were successful, it often meant separating themselves not only from their old culture and language, but from their families as well."
Baker portrays the anger and anguish of this struggle perfectly in his depiction of Esther's head-strong rebellion against her old-world father, a character readers will both pity and despise.
"Esther's father," Baker says, "is a luftmensch, which is a wonderful term that literally means 'a man of the air.' In part because Jews were banned from taking part in many professions and businesses in Russia and Eastern Europe, a large emphasis was placed on learning in that culture. Eventually this proved to be very important for success in America, but in the meantime you had all these people who were raised to be scholars of the Torah and the Talmud. They came over here and found that they had to go to work. It was tremendously difficult for them, both to find work and to actually work. So you'd have mothers and daughters going out to a job and these frustrated scholars and rabbis sitting at home. It produced a tremendous number of very independent, hard-working women, but it also led to ongoing conflict. America seemed unnatural to these pious old men, who were used to a village structure. It seemed to them that their children were getting away from them and getting into all these sinful ways."
And, oh, what sinful ways! Baker fleshes out his tale of labor and love with wonderful characters from New York's turn-of-the-century underworld -- prostitutes and gamblers, opium addicts and heartless sweatshop owners, corrupt politicians and Coney Island con-artists. Some of these characters are imaginary, but just as many are real, rediscovered and brought back to life by Baker's prodigious historical research.
Herman "Beansie" Rosenthal, for instance, was so notorious in his day and his murder was so scandalous that his story made its way into F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Who besides Baker knows Rosenthal's story today?
Baker, who was chief historical researcher for Harold Evans's recently published bestseller, The American Century, and has just been hired to write the History in the News column for American Heritage magazine, is a wonderful researcher. Somehow he finds exactly the right, unexpected detail to add life and authenticity to his narrative.
Dreamland hums with the lyrics of the era, and is filled with the smells and sounds of New York at the beginning of the century. Baker also has a good bit of fun with his details, sneaking "real, unnamed, historical personalities" into his story and naming one of his composite characters after his brother-in-law.
The most surprising real-life characters to appear in Dreamland are Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, passing through the story on their way to Worcester, Massachusetts, to deliver the famous Clark University lectures on psychology. "Most of their story is based quite closely on real life," Baker says. "Freud actually did faint when he saw a column of German troops in Bremen. Jung's dream is actually the dream that Jung had. The dialogue is almost verbatim."
In Dreamland nearly everyone ends up at Coney Island. "Coney Island had all these extraordinary rides and exhibits -- the Steeplechase ride, the All Dwarf City, tableaux of all the great disasters of the time. You could see an earthquake in Martinique or the Johnstown Flood. I was really inspired by Ric Burns's great documentary on Coney Island. . . . I saw that Coney Island was a key part of the assimilation process, a sort of blank sheet on which these people projected their greatest hopes and worst fears about life in America. Coney Island was a sort of pageant of their lives." And so is Kevin Baker's Dreamland.
Alden Mudge is on the staff of the California Council for the Humanities.