It’s phenomenal. Read it. It’s the actual embodiment of that reviewer’s cliché, the tour de force.
Dreamland is partly the story of Esther Abramowitz, a sewing machine worker from the lower east side of New York City during the ‘melting pot’ era, and of her lover Josef (alias ‘Kid Twist’). The daughter of unassimilated Eastern European Jewish emigrants, throughout the novel Esther becomes the ultimate self-realised woman of the New York slums. Meanwhile, her brother Lazar (alias ‘Gyp the Blood’), already morally destitute and a gangster at the novel’s start (when Josef prevents him from breaking someone’s back), becomes fully a monster. Baker teases with the suggestion that the love story of Esther and Josef is another new world Romeo and Juliet in the vein of West Side Story. However, Esther is far more self-aware and cynical than either Juliet or Maria could have dreamed of being. Hard labour from an early age have grown her up into a remarkably strong woman. In the telling, Baker juxtaposes gritty realism and weirdness: the love story is told by ‘Trick the Dwarf,’ a circus freak by profession, and a dryly poetic narrator. ‘Dreamland’ is the name of the Coney Island amusement park where he lives and works in a dwarf township called the ‘Little City’ with his queen ‘The Mad Carlotta.’
Another plot line follows the visit of Doctors Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Sandor Forenci to America. (This gives the novel’s title its punning significance.) Intermittently, we watch as Freud and Jung act out their ideological schism, and part intellectual company, to the slapstick idiot’s delight and tune of Forenci’s bumbling. The great schism is played out from Freud’s perspective. We do not so much encounter Freud, ‘The Father of Psychoanalysis,’ as we do an ageing, and touchingly fragile man whose empirical reason vies for control with his grandiosity. Baker’s very wonderful characterisation establishes Freud (well, Baker’s character at least) as a multi-dimentional person. For the novel’s duration, Freud the man is reclaimed from the unfortunate role of dour patriarch to which he is often relegated. Clearly a great deal of research was involved in this characterisation. In Baker’s world, Freud’s humour and self-mockery temper his grandiosity.
Baker’s fabulous characterisation is important because it gives humanity to a quasi-historical account. I know historical fiction is a novelistic genre, not an academic one, but like Philip Roth before him (the comparison is inevitable) Baker has allowed the voices of impoverished nineteen-tens New York–a sprawling mass of emigrants, union workers, corrupt politicians, crime bosses, prostitutes, etc.–to vivify one very particular moment in time. Baker has put across the great visceral stink and swarm of tenement life in particular, and ‘melting pot’ survival in general, but without suffocating the reader with a modernist ennui, which I should think would be the temptation in writing a book of this sort. Instead, tenement life is shown to possess the impelling force of the will to survive. Baker’s people are like indomitable, rank weeds.
To sum up then, there is a sooty lyricism to Baker’s writing. Perhaps this is because he has worked on newspapers from early adolescence. Perhaps he has managed to merge a crisp, old style journalistic edge with a very real insight into the multi-facetedness of individuals, as well as with an awareness of the opposite quality–the impersonal self-propulsion of life. I could rhapsodise unendingly about Kevin Baker’s skill as a novelist, and ponderously wonder why this book is so achieved. Instead I will leave you with this thought: Kevin Baker is the goods.
Reviewed by Amanda Jeremin Harris