The late Thomas Boyle was a Pennsylvania kid who spent part of his childhood in Brooklyn. (That makes him an Honorary Brooklyn Boy in my opinion.) He graduated from Cornell, earned his doctorate at NYU and taught at Brooklyn College for many years. Some book review sites confuse him with the more famous T.C. Boyle the author of many brilliant novels including The Road to Wellville – set in a 19th century health-spa and Drop City – set in an Alaskan hippie commune.
Our Thomas Boyle’s last book (published in 1990 in the midst of his crime trilogy) was Black Swine in the Sewers of Hampstead – a study of Victorian crime fiction. It sounds like the Sherlock Holmes mystery Conan Doyle forgot to write! I’ve added it to my “must read” list.
Any fan of gumshoe fiction will enjoy Boyle’s modern yet faithful reworking of the much-loved archetypes and plot devices of that often hackneyed genre.
Anyone who knows the geography of Brooklyn will get an extra kick out of Boyle’s locales. His hard-boiled tales follow Detective Frank DeSales as he chases bad guys down hidden alleys in Red Hook, across garbage strewn vacant lots in Williamsburgh and even onto the hallowed ground of Green-Wood Cemetery.
If you like Lawrence Block’s ex-cop now “private dick” Matt Scudder, you’ll feel right at home with Thomas Boyle’s active duty detective Frank DeSales. They are brothers from another mother.
I can’t find any movies or TV shows based on this trilogy which is a shame and surprising. For decades now, “All things Brooklyn” have been all the rage. Go know!
Any list of famous writers from Brooklyn would fill a decent sized phone book. And any list of books set in Brooklyn would be almost as large. I’ve read plenty of both but there are many more I’ve missed. So, the posts I’ll be making about Brooklyn books will be far from a definitive list. Think of them as tips from your friendly Brooklyn librarian.
It would be remiss of me not to begin with the very first “Brooklyn” book I ever read. (Hell, it was the very first book I ever read cover-to-cover!) And, I’ve reread it many times since – most recently last Tuesday. In fact, it’s the overdue book mentioned above – overdue for over 60 years! If you haven’t read it then all I can say is, “I pity you!”
“Psssst, hey kid, ya wanna read a really doity book?”
As you drive into Brooklyn across the Brooklyn Bridge a large sign looms up at you. It screams, “Last Exit to Brooklyn.” If a driver doesn’t take that exit they are taken onto the Gowanus Expressway and thence over the neighborhood of Sunset Park where the spectacularly downbeat novel Last Exit to Brooklyn is set. In the 1950s, the period of the novel, that sign should have screamed, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”
In the 50s, the waterfront of Sunset Park was a land of perpetual night – a slum rotting in fetid shadow beneath the elevated Gowanus Expressway. The Mafia had killed the docks, Robert Moses had killed Sunset Park by cutting it in two with his hideous highway and the Dodgers had killed Brooklyn by moving to L.A.
Hubert Selby Jr. knew this coz he was a Brooklyn boy born right next door to Sunset Park in Bay Ridge.
Selby’s book consists of inter-locking tales of losers, junkies, sadists, pimps, hookers and trannies who fight for scraps in a nightmare world of gangs and gang-bangs.
I was raised in the 1950s just a few blocks away from this world. I even swam in the public pool there. But, I knew better than to venture into the Terra Incognita below the highway. Many years later, I met a Yorkshireman who had lived in a sleaze-bag hotel in Sunset Park during WW2. He was outfitting ships to British standards that had been built in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He told me that the whole area was full of crap games, gyp-joints and whorehouses all making a fortune from the servicemen and dock workers.
In the 1980s, I would spend pointless, penniless weekends meandering around Brooklyn by bike. I was drawn to the derelict and rotting factories of Industry City that lined the waterfront in Sunset Park. I thought, “Damn, this would make a great film set.” And, that’s exactly where, a few years later, much of the movie of Last Exit to Brooklyn was filmed.
That film is good but doesn’t capture the daring style and outrageous vitality of Selby’s prose. Plus, by 1989, much of the shock value of his book’s subject matter had been lost. But, when it was first published in 1964, Last Exit to Brooklyn was an outrage and banned in several countries. I haven’t been impressed by Selby’s other work but anyone interested in the lower depths of Brooklyn life and the heights of “outsider” American literature should read Last Exit to Brooklyn.
In 1965, I read it as a 15-year-old while working as a messenger in Times Square. The guy who sold it to me could have been arrested. I made sure that its instantly recognizable cover was always visible sticking out of my back pocket as I made deliveries. And, I made sure that same cover was visible as I read Last Exit to Brooklyn on the subway. I didn’t live in a artist’s garret in Greenwich Village but it was fun to pretend that I did.
On the stoops of 1950s Brooklyn, the subjects debated included sex, race, sex, religion, sex, baseball, sex, politics, sex and the price of pork bellies on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. But, once the Russkies got the “H” Bomb and thus trumped our “A” Bomb the most hotly debated topic was nuclear proliferation –
“Lissen kid, when World War Three breaks out, Brooklyn goes first.”
“How come?” I gulped.
“How come? Ya kiddin’ me? The Navy Yard!”
Now, it must be said that the Brooklyn Navy Yard played a major, nay, indispensable role in the victory of World War Two. Brooklyn was/is justly proud of its contribution. But, with hindsight and considerable regret, I confess I’m not convinced that by 1955 Brooklyn would have been #1 on Moscow’s hit list. In 1945? You bet yer ass. 1955? Mmm… maybe not.
Today, I would consider it a boon to humanity if Moscow nuked Brooklyn. I long to see its galleries of ironic art incinerated; its ubiquitous nannies and au pairs obliterated; the yummy mummies who employ them turned to dust; the metrosexual soyboys of Williamsburg and Bushwick reduced to atoms and Brooklyn’s stoops and vestibules left standing naked against the angry sky – the buildings to which they’d been attached blown all the way to Canarsie. Then, out of the rubble, tiny antennae will feel, push and emerge as King Cockroach reclaims the county of Kings.
Like most kids in Cold War Brooklyn, I spent a considerable amount of time cowering inside a “fallout shelter” i.e. stuffed under my school desk. Our nuns at St. John the Pederast School took these survival drills deadly seriously. They demanded fingers on lips and hands on rosary beads until the all clear. (These sirens were a major part of the soundscape of my Brooklyn childhood but, for the life of me, I can’t remember when their blaring stopped.)
In October of 1962, during the darkest days of the Cuban Missile Crisis, I was only twelve but already a political junkie so I was understandably scared shitless. The morning after JFK’s famous speech to the nation when nuclear holocaust seemed moments away, my mother called her six children into the kitchen and explained that we might not ever see each other again but that we shouldn’t worry coz we’d all be “going together in a flash” – she at home, we at school and our father in his Wall Street office. Then in the throaty melodramatic tone she’d learned as a wannabe actress, she read a poem to us. It described New York City under nuclear attack. I found the description of the waters of New York harbor flooding into the canyons of Wall Street particularly harrowing and was glad that my father worked on a high floor there. Then I crawled to school sure that I’d never see lunch again let alone my siblings. I took some solace in the fact that the Yankees had just beaten the Giants in the World Series and would (like Cagney in White Heat) go out “top of the world, Ma!”
I’ve since learned that the world wasn’t as close to nuclear Armageddon as I thought at the time. Various back channel assets and deep state actors on both sides of the standoff had agreed to not blow each other to smithereens. So, as JFK and Khrushchev blustered and bluffed, the fate of the world had already been taken from their hands, sealed and saved.
During and just after World War Two, Brooklyn became America’s surrogate home town. In the war movies, every tank and submarine crew included a much-loved, wise-crackin’, skirt chasin’ guy from Flatbush. The comic Phil Foster carried this tradition into outer space as the most unlikely astronaut in history. In the 1955 low-budge flick Conquest of Space, “Flatbush Phil” stares out the space ship porthole as it circles the Earth and shouts, “Hey, deres Brooklyn. How ‘re da Dodgers doin’?”
I think Brooklyn’s much loved and easily imitated Brooklynese accent helped make the borough a shared joke that bonded military units and the folks back home. Do you remember when anytime someone announced on a radio or TV program that they were from Brooklyn the audience would break into instant laughter and applause? I’m not sure anyone even knew why they did that. But, it might have been down to a shared folk memory. After all, this was a time when 1-in-4 Americans could trace their family back to Brooklyn! (Probably 3-in-4 wanted to chase them back there!)
Meanwhile, the tunesmiths of Tin Pan Alley, always on the lookout for a hit, mined the instant folksiness, humor and sentimentality of Brooklyn. Whipping out their “June – Moon” rhyming dictionary they produced delightful ditties like Give Me The Moon Over Brooklyn by Matthews & Shand. (Believe it or not, Guy Lombardo did a very catchy version of it.) And, Same Moon Shines In Brooklyn by Felsen & Peters.
Another sweet, nostalgic tune is In Brooklyn by John Benson Brooks and Stanley Adams. Benson Brooks later composed the brilliant jazz-blues piece Alabama Concerto. Adams wrote lyrics for Hoagy Carmichael and Visitor Herbert. All the songs mentioned were written in the midst or the shadow of WW2.
The centre of pop music songwriting in New York moved uptown from Tin Pan Alley on W. 28th st. to midtown’s Brill Building. But, so many of the composers and lyricists who worked there were from Brooklyn that it should have been called the Brooklyn Building. Just read the list below and you’ll see that the “Sound of Brooklyn” became the “Sound of America.”
Neil Diamond, Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Hal David, Howard Greenfield, Neil Sedaka, Mort Shuman, Doc Pomus, Barry Mann.
Brooklyn and her bridge have been featured in countless movies, stories and songs. My favorite song about the bridge was written for Sinatra in the 1947 MGM musical It Happened In Brooklyn. It was penned by the legendary team of lyricist Sammy Cahn and composer June Styne.
Their lilting tune and snappy, slightly sentimental lyrics effortlessly capture the look and feel of the bridge and the city. Here’s a taste of Cahn’s lyrics :
If you’ve been a rover Journey’s end lies over the Brooklyn Bridge Don’t let no one tell you I’ve been tryin’ to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge
My favorite recording of Brooklyn Bridge is by Mel Tormé. (It was later sampled for a duet with Barry Manilow!) I came to appreciate Mel Tormé late in life. I’d dismissed him as just another finger-snapping lounge-lizard. How wrong I was! The man was a musical genius. Don’t believe me? Listen to his arrangements and vocals with the Mel-Tones. Get a hold of his original California Suite and his several albums with the brilliant arranger Marty Paich. If you enjoy pop, jazz, Tin Pan Alley, show tunes, swinging jazz and vocal harmony groups then you are in for a treat.
A great place to start is Mel Tormé Sings Sunday In New York. Come to think of it, that’s another under-rated song about New York! Cute movie, too!
The Brooklyn Bridge is best experienced from a distance. Walking across it is a noisy, dangerous slog. As the cars speed over the traffic lanes made of metal grates, they make a helluva racket. And, the aggressive, gluten-free cyclists take no prisoners. But, viewed from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, especially at twilight, the Brooklyn Bridge is one of the most beautiful structures in the world.
Another great way to see the bridge is from below via the Wall Street Ferry which runs from the foot of Wall Street to Greenpoint, Red Hook and beyond. The ferry travels right below the bridge and affords a fantastic view of lower Manhattan. It costs the same as a subway ride!
Board the ferry headed to trendy Red Hook where you can find a few bars and shops worth a quick stop. Then cross busy Hamilton Avenue into bucolic Carroll Gardens famous for its brownstones with front gardens and Italian flavor. Then walk down Henry Street or Clinton Street thru Cobble Hill and into Brooklyn Heights. Check guide books for houses of note and restaurants en route. Sit and stroll on the Promenade and enjoy the spectacular view of the Brooklyn Bridge. Then catch a subway back to your hotel or home.
Be sure to meander up and down the streets of Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill and Brooklyn Heights. Follow your nose. You can’t get lost. They are among the most gorgeous neighborhoods in the world!
John A. Roebling, who designed the Brooklyn Bridge, built an earlier, similar version of it in Cincinnati. That bridge spans the Ohio River between the stadiums where the Reds and Bengals play. I had never heard about this bridge so when I first saw it in person, I felt as though I’d fallen into an alternate-universe, Brooklyn Bridge Twilight Zone.