Elizabeth Gaffney, a contributing editor to The Paris Review, has written an immigrant's song of a first novel. Metropolis is a paean to the city of New York, a bygone era and the perseverance of the human spirit.
Set in the turbulent years following the Civil War, this ambitious historical novel tells the story of a young German immigrant with a checkered past and the streetwise Irish girl with whom he falls in love. Framed for a stable fire at P.T. Barnum's famous show, Georg (one of just several names he goes by in the book) begins a steep descent into the far-reaching New York underworld. He is first noticed by Beatrice O'Gamhna, a wild, Dickensian street urchin who is no better than she has to be, and often worse. Almost comically, she mistakes Georg for a master criminal and duly tells her gang leader about him.
Beatrice's sociopathic boss is Dandy Johnny, the nominal leader of the Whyos (quite unbeknownst to the rest of the gang, Johnny's mother is the real brains behind the gang's success). Johnny decides to help Georg in exchange for the use of the immigrant's supposed criminal expertise. Hunted by the police and another local criminal, the mysterious Undertoe, Georg makes a Faustian pact with Johnny that links their destinies forever.
Set amid the bustle of a city just starting to shrug off the shadow of corruption and become the capital of the world, Gaffney's book is filled with unique and memorably bold characters. At its core, this is a love story of a man and a woman who believe that a better life exists despite all evidence to the contrary. It's an absorbing read. Commendably, Gaffney has created characters with enough style and grandeur not to be upstaged by her admirably painstaking recreation of an untamed New York, which apparently was much wilder than the renowned West of the same era.
Ian Schwartz writes from New York City.