Manhattan Beach

Jennifer Egan

October 5, 2017 
The following is from Jennifer Egan’s novel, Manhattan Beach. Opening in Brooklyn during the Great Depression with the pace and atmosphere of a noir thriller, Egan’s first historical novel is a intimate exploration of a transformative moment in the lives of women and men, America and the world. Jennifer Egan is the author of five previous books of fiction: A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won the Pulitzer Prize. and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Driving along Eighty-sixth Street in Brooklyn, Dexter Styles saw Badger check his wristwatch and then extend a hairy hand toward the radio dial, presumably to turn on the five-thirty a.m. news. Dexter knocked the hand away.

“What’d you do that for?” Badger groused.

“You don’t touch a man’s car without his permission. Or did they not teach you that in Chicago?”

“Sorry, boss,” Badger said meekly, but his stubborn, merry eyes told a different story. Sure enough, he went on, “It’s just that . . . I’m touching the car by sitting in the car, if you take my meaning. I’m touching the seat when I lean back.”

“If you want me to smack you, why not just ask.”

“Say, you’ve been sore at me all night.”

Dexter glanced at him. Among Badger’s maddening traits was a fair degree of accuracy at reading Dexter’s moods. He was sore—why, he couldn’t recall. Maybe it was the fact that Badger was clogging up his car at what would soon be Dexter’s favorite hour: the pause between night and dawn when you felt the possibility of light before any was visible.

“The girl,” he said, remembering. “You were rude to the girl who approached my table. Miss Feeney.”

Badger gaped incredulously.

“At Hell’s Bells, that’s one thing,” Dexter said, referring to his roadhouse in the Flatlands, which they’d visited first after leaving Moonshine. “Even at the Pines, although you won’t hear Mr. Healey talk that way to a customer. But not at Moonshine.”

“Too high-class?”

“Something like that.”

Badger heaved a sigh. “It was different in Chicago.”

“So I’m told.”

For seven nights running, Badger had yakked his ear off about Chicago’s swell gin joints and incomparable dames and dishy lake; above all, the silken accord between Syndicate and Law. Badger loved Chicago, but Chicago did not love Badger. Something had gone very wrong in the Windy City, and a less lucky kid would be feeding fishes at the bottom of Lake Michigan. But Badger’s mother was a favorite niece of Mr. Q.’s. Conversations had taken place, and Mr. Q. had secured his great-nephew’s safe passage to Brooklyn, where he’d handed him over to Dexter for education and guidance. The normal thing would have been for Badger to drive him, but Dexter would sooner have made the kid his lawyer. He never let another man behind the wheel of his new Series 62 Cadillac, painted Norse Gray, one of the last to roll off the line before Detroit moved strictly into war production. Dexter loved to drive. He doubted there were ten men in New York who drove as much as he did, or went through more black-market gasoline.

“Say, you’re going the wrong way, boss.”

“That all depends where I’m trying to go.”

“I thought you were taking me home.” Badger meant Bensonhurst, where he was sleeping in the spare bedroom of Mr. Q.’s ancient maiden sister.

From Gravesend, where they’d just visited the Pines, Dexter had driven unthinkingly into Bay Ridge. He’d discovered an excellent view of the Narrows a few weeks ago, after visiting an associate on a hilly street above Fort Hamilton. He’d been about to get back in his car when he found himself staring into the dark of the Upper Bay, where boats and waterfront were blacked out. He’d perceived a new, dynamic density in the darkness. All at once his eyes had organized the mystery and he’d seen it: a procession of immense ships slipping from the harbor at regular intervals like beasts or ghosts. A convoy headed out to sea. There was something profound, unearthly, even, in its muted passage. Dexter waited until every ship passed—twenty-eight, he counted, but who knew how long the parade had gone on before he’d arrived. At last, the little gate boat had come along to close the anti-submarine net. After that, he’d made a habit of returning to this spot every few nights, hoping to catch sight of another convoy.

“You’re young and healthy, Badger,” he said as the engine idled.

“Why haven’t you signed up?”

“I’m not a soldier, that’s why.”

“A soldier is exactly what you are. As am I.”

“Not that kind.”

“Your great-uncle is our general.”

“Not the marching kind.”

Dexter turned to him sternly. “If Mr. Q. told us to march, we’d march. If he told us to wear monkey suits, we’d put them on. You wouldn’t happen to be 4-F, would you, Badger?”

“Me?” Badger said shrilly. “Why, I’ve eyes like a Siamese. From the roof of the Drake Hotel, I could read blinker signals all the way from the middle of Lake Michigan.”

Chicago again. Dexter watched the harbor while Badger rhapsodized, thinking over what he’d just heard at both Hell’s Bells and the Pines: business was down. Men hadn’t enough gasoline to drive to roadhouses. It would likely be the same story at the clubs on Long Island and the Palisades, which he would visit tonight and on Monday.

Heels, his man at the Pines, had told him something else: a former card dealer, name of Hugh Mackey, was making trouble. He’d gambled too much, borrowed too heavily, stuck his paws too deep in the till, and gotten canned. Now he was threatening Heels with blackmail if he didn’t rehire him at a better salary. Claimed he’d seen enough in eight months to put them all in Sing Sing. Dexter tried to picture Hugh Mackey. He could always put a name to a face, but a name alone sometimes wasn’t enough.

“What did she want in the end?” Badger asked lazily. “That twat who kept coming back.”

“Watch your mouth.”

“She can’t hear me.”

Dexter marveled at his insolence. It made him grasp something that had eluded him until that instant: Badger thought he was protected. He’d mistaken Mr. Q.’s helping hand for immunity of some kind—apparently unaware that Mr. Q.’s own brother had vanished in the course of his ascent, along with at least two cousins. This misapprehension explained Badger’s exaggerated deference toward Dexter, the twist of mockery inside it.

“Get out,” Dexter said.

Badger looked bewildered.

“Beat it. Now.”

The kid sputtered a moment, but he must have known Dexter meant it. He opened the door and stepped into the dark. Dexter drove away quickly and quietly, glancing just once in the rearview mirror. He barely made out Badger gazing after the car in the cheap suit Dexter had bought him the week before at Crawford’s. It would take him some doing to find his way back to Bensonhurst, if he even knew the address. Those squeaky new brogues would get broken in fast. With a kid like that, you’d no choice but to hit him hard, as many times as it took. Whatever Mr. Q. had saved him from in Chicago could not have been worse than the hellfire that would rain down on Badger here in New York if he failed to observe the chain of command. There was no such thing as immunity. Thinking you had it was suicide.


From Manhattan Beach. Used with permission of Scribner. Copyright © 2017 by Jennifer Egan.

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