The Memories of Streets: A Reading List of NYC Books That Capture the City’s Many Sides
Jonathan Wells Recommends Sam Lipsyte, E.L. Doctorow, Vivian Gornick, and More
By instinct and intention, I have been reading books about New York or set in New York since I was a kid. Each one uncovers a facet of the city. Together they form my picture of the life that is hidden inside its buildings or around the corner. Some of these titles, I read when they were first published decades ago. Others, that were written earlier, in some cases much earlier, were set in places I lived in or near.
Their landmarks became part of my life and I came to know about them and their authors through the intimacy of that coincidence. Others nested in my memory and imagination.
While I was writing The Sterns Are Listening, I noticed how the city became a character in the novel by providing visual and especially auditory material. The noises of the city, what Benjamin Stern hears or can’t hear, the sounds of his neighborhood or unfamiliar ones, inform his sense of location and identity .
I do not recall all the details, plots or characters of the New York books that have been important to me but I do remember at least a scene or the tone or texture of the prose. Reading them, I was so awed by their style and grace that I thought I could never do what they did and gave up. At other times, I thought that was the only thing I wanted to do and would try again even if it killed me.
While there are many other memoirs and novels about New York that I haven’t read or included representing other views of the city, as a composite, these titles form my impression: gritty, intimate, various, wild and authentic. They do for me and New York City what I think the best writing does: animate, transform and illuminate.
Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence
Set in the 1870s but written in the 1920s, Edith Wharton’s novel of morals and manners was set during New York’s “gilded age.” Its center was Broadway and 23rd street. The Trinity church where Edith Wharton was married is located on 24th Street West of Broadway.
From my office window, I looked down on its roof and exterior for ten years but rarely went beyond the plaque on the brick commemorating her wedding. Trinity was sold to the Serbian Orthodox community in 1945 when most of its parishioners had moved uptown. When it burned down in 2016, I felt that I (and Edith) had lost a touchstone in the city.
Joseph Mitchell, Up in the Old Hotel
Joseph Mitchell wrote for The New Yorker for over thirty years. In his first decade he was prolific; his short pieces on unusual characters and aspects of the city helped the magazine find its readership. His later pieces were longer and took years to write. His piece on Sloppy Louie’s, a restaurant in the Fulton Fish Market from 1952, begins, “Every now and then, seeking to rid my mind of thoughts of death and doom, I get up early and go down to Fulton Fish Market.”
E. L. Doctorow, Billy Bathgate
E.L. Doctorow’s 1989 novel was one of the first books that showed me how expansive and textured the first person voice could be. Written through the eyes of a boy who catches the attention of Jewish gangster Dutch Schultz, the opening chapter describes how the boss’s accomplices fashion a pair of concrete shoes for turncoat Bo Weinberg as a tugboat carries them out of New York harbor toward the Atlantic Ocean.
The captain describes the return journey, “You’d come up the East River just before dawn. City fast asleep. First you’d see the sun on the gulls, they’d turn white. Then the top of the Hell Gate turned to gold.”
James McBride, The Color of Water
James McBride’s memoir of growing up with his Jewish mother and black father and stepfather is essential to New York City’s diversity. The poverty, education, and ambition for her twelve kids makes McBride’s mother an unforgettable character and often the only white person in black neighborhoods. “Back in the Red Hook Housing Projects in Brooklyn, where we lived before moving to the relative bliss of St. Albans, Queens, Mommy put us to bed each night like slabs of meat…”
Steven Millhauser, Martin Dressler
Martin Dressler is the title of Steven Milhauser’s 1997 Pulitzer Prize winning novel of ambition and fantasy and is set in Wharton’s neighborhood. Starting work at his father’s tobacco store, aged nine, Martin figures out how to increase cigar sales by putting a cigar tree in the front window. As his business successes multiply, he builds the Hotel Dressler, the most extravagant hotel in the world, and then dreams of creating something so much larger and magnificent that it defies the imagination and reality.
Vivian Gornick, Fierce Attachments
Fierce Attachments is Vivian Gornick’s extraordinary memoir of life in a tenement in the Bronx, as far from the Manhattan elite as possible. Born into an immigrant Jewish family, surrounded by other immigrants, Gornick tells how she and her mother survived the building and the city that they shared as young mother and daughter and as adults.
“The Bronx,” she writes, “was a patchwork of invaded ethnic territories….Our building was all Jewish except for one Irish family on the first floor, one Russian family on the third floor and a Polish superintendent….Here my mother was in her element, had enough room to…express herself freely, be warm and sarcastic, hysterical and generous, ironic and judgmental….”
Sam Lipsyte, No One Left to Come Looking for You
No One Left to Come Looking For You by Sam Lipsyte is the great rock and roll New York novel. Set in the Lower East Side it is the saga of a missing bass guitar owned by Jack (formerly Jonathan) Shit of the band The Shits. Earl, their lead singer, has stolen Jack’s instrument to buy drugs. The search for it through the disheveled apartments of Avenue A in the 90s is the quest that holds the story together.
After listening to a collection of punk vinyl inherited from a neighbor, Lipsyte writes as Jonathan, “I put them on my turntable, each one a revelation, an orgasmic punch, a shock like I’d licked a terminal on the world’s tallest battery. Ferocious and exquisite sound realms beckoned. I’d found the answer to my anger, my suffering.”
The Sterns Are Listening by Jonathan Wells is available via ZE Books.