"If Paris is France, Coney Island, between June and September, is the world."
George C. Tilyou, entrepreneur, circa 1905
From the decks of a steamship that brings Sigmund Freud to America for a lecture tour, hundreds of European immigrants strain for a glimpse of the promised land. As they approach, they see New York, the city of their dreams, being consumed by flames. But as they draw nearer, their despair turns to amazement as they realize their searing image of the New World is really the magical radiance of a million incandescent lights at Coney Island's Dreamland amusement parka sight so spectacular, so unearthly, they are sure they can only be passing through the gates of heaven....or hell.
This is the New York of Dreamland, a uniquely fierce and magical novel that delivers both a sweeping chronicle of America at the turn of the century and an intimate, heart-wrenching portrait of the lives of its denizens. Among the thousands of immigrants who arrive in New York harbor is an Eastern European stowaway called Kid Twist, who soon earns his keep as an enforcer for the ruthless gangster Gyp the Blood. When Kid is pressed to murder an informer in a police corruption investigation that threatens to bring down the powerful political machine of Tammany Hall, Kid brutally splits with Gyp, leaving him bleeding from a shovel wound to the head in a rancid basement on the Lower East River to Brooklyn, finding asylum with a Coney Island carny known as Trick the Dwarf.
While hiding in Coney Islandin a tin-roofed hotel built in the shape of a giant elephantKid Twist meets young Esther Abramowitz, a shirtwaist seamstress who labors under inhuman conditions to support a frail mother and embittered father. As their love affair blossoms, Esther emerges from quiet shopworker to foot soldier in the burgeoning labor movement in the days leading to the cataclysmic Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire. Changed by love, Kid, too, is no longer the ruthless scavenger he once was. As he prepares for an electrifying showdown with the vengeful Gyp the Blood, the police corruption case intensifies, wreaking havoc for ruthless Tammany Hall politician Big Tim Sullivan, who sees his control over this raw, dynamic city slowly slipping away.
Kevin Baker's deftly imagined blend of meticulous historical research and assured narrative invention recreates a world bursting at the seams, a world of freak shows, scientific wonders, cataclysmic exhibitions, mad dwarves, bathing beauties, diving horses, hootchy-kootchy dancers, and dreaming geniuses. In prose that is at once ferocious and breathtakingly lyrical, Dreamland weaves a richly layered tapestry that captures perfectly the emotional and psychological essence of the American experience at the dawn of a new age.
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Kevin Baker's Dreamland is the kind of novel that begins with a two-page list of characters and ends with a nine-page glossary. In between, this vast, sprawling carnival of a book takes in Coney Island and the Lower East Side, midgets and gangsters, Bowery bars and opium dens, even Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. It is, in short, a novel as big, lively, and ambitious as Gotham itself, and if you can stomach some of the more garish local color, it's every bit as much fun. Set at the turn of the century, in a New York as polyglot as any city on earth, Dreamland opens with an act of misplaced--and very stupid--compassion. Eastern European immigrant Kid Twist intervenes when villainous gangster Gyp the Blood is on the verge of murdering a young newsboy for sport. But surprise: that's no street urchin--that's Trick the Dwarf, self-proclaimed Mayor of Little City and a Coney Island tout, who dresses up as a boy, he says, as "a way I had of leaving myself behind." Trick hides Kid Twist in the hind parts of the Tin Elephant Hotel; Kid Twist meets Esther Abramowitz, impoverished seamstress and labor agitator, then falls in love; Trick woos Mad Carlotta, a three-foot beauty who thinks she's the Empress of Mexico; and Freud and Jung sail for America, where they squabble about psychoanalysis. There are also a few subplots involving police corruption, Tammany Hall, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire--but who's counting? Suffice to say that it all really does come together in the end, and you won't be bored for one step of the way. Baker served as chief historical researcher for Harold Evans's The American Century, and it's clear that he put his time there to good use; Dreamland is full of vivid historical detail, from Lower East Side slang to the lyrics of popular songs. If this is middlebrow entertainment, it's middlebrow in the same way as Dickens: extravagantly plotted, elegantly written, and compassionate to the core. --Mary ParkAbout the Author:
Kevin Baker is the author of the novel Sometimes You See It Coming (based loosely on the life of old-timer baseball great Ty Cobb) and served as chief historical researcher for the recently published The American Century by Harold Evans. He is married and lives in New York City.
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