The New Cosmopolis

Novelists Todd McEwen and Andrew Lewis Conn Discuss What’s Important in Fiction: Joyce, Beckett, and Chuck Woolery

There are few clues to when, exactly, the story takes place; if it's now, why do they refer to the subway as the IRT? And why is the F-word literally that? ("F***"—who knew asterisks could be so charming?) "I was going for a very benign '30s, '40s, '50s feel—anything from a certain architecture to a kind of living," McEwen notes. "Not the lives of glamorous people but just ordinary people: The older culture of eating out as a family, of kids scooting around on their own. MacK, who works for NBC, has sort of a nostalgia for his own building, the RCA Building. He's not calling it the GE Building, changing the name because a company's changed the name."

Katz kicks off with a no-holds-barred rant against the sons of Eli ("The problem has always been Yalies") that ends in a hilarious summing-up of "the great white culture," at odds with multi-everything New York. MacK searches for anything worth preserving: "John O'Hara? Pearl Jam? Lawrence Welk? . . . Red Skelton? Hallmark, Microsoft? Mobil? Bill Clinton? Jane Fonda, Walt Disney, American Gladiators?" (Will the tweedy MegaHarvard guy in A.D. 2075 who pins down Woolery have a bead on the implications of Eddie Vedder?)

Since the '80s, McEwen has lived in Edinburgh, which is probably why I think he resembles the actor Brian Cox (Conn will later suggest Brian Dennehy). Though McEwen visits New York periodically, Katz was written in Scotland—just as his previous books, grounded in a specific place, were penned somewhere other than where they're set. The results are funnier, more intense, as if the flavors had gone slightly unreal from memory's marinade. Recall the last words of Ulysses: not "Yes," but "Trieste-Zurich-Paris." (Katz is dedicated to McEwen's wife, novelist Lucy Ellmann—daughter of Joyce biographer Richard Ellmann.) McEwen was "born in Disneyland"; his third novel, Arithmetic (1998), recounts an accurately confused, cartoon-California childhood under the sign of the Mouse and in thrall to space exploration. In 1971 he arrived in New York to attend Columbia; he worked briefly with the New York Shakespeare Festival, living on the West Side (and never below 70th Street). "Then I got interested in lots of very terrible folk music and ended up moving to Boston, because there was more going on in terms of traditional fiddling," he explains. Beantown became the setting for his 1983 debut, Fisher's Hornpipe, in which the narrator, musing on—actually, hallucinating—Thoreau, whangs his head on the ice of Walden Pond, then proceeds through a mock-epic existential romp, complete with a weird commune, hobo insurrection, and violin abuse.

Walkers in the city: writers Andrew Lewis Conn and Todd McEwen rejoyce.
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Walkers in the city: writers Andrew Lewis Conn and Todd McEwen rejoyce.

Tradition-fiddling: Thoreauvian pastoral, hijacked by the spirit of Beckett. In Katz, the New York novel isn't a tightly plotted way-we-live-now machine, but a nearly plotless, temporally elastic, elegantly timeless vehicle: Pace Howard Jones, if you haven't got much time, why not try to live your life in one day? (Our friend of the future is now looking up on überGoogle: HOWARD JONES LIFE IN ONE DAY.) Of the book's uptown-downtown trend, McEwen says, "I didn't want to be too linear, too geographic. You couldn't mention every street corner [that MacK passes]—it'd be crazy. 'Now he's at 34th and Fifth!' " Though in Edinburgh he burrowed into The Encyclopedia of New York City and "old New York books about restaurants, dining, buildings—just kind of haphazard atmospheric stuff—in the end [I didn't] want it to be all that concrete. That's not how people think—'I am now walking by the Fred F. French Building!' " Thus the stolid Depression-era structure at Broadway and 73rd looms in MacK's mind as the "Pillow Bank," nothing concrete about it. The "absurd soft-looking stone," recessed doors, indirect light: all reminds MacK of the tomb, and he sprints east before reaching it—"Straight for Amsterdam and the Park! With cancer!"

The delightful, antiquated endpapers for Who Sleeps With Katz come from a 1932 book that Isidor might sell: Helen Worden's wordily titled The Real New York: A Guide for the Adventurous Shopper, the Exploratory Eater and the Know-It-All Sightseer Who Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet. While hunting down this title at the library—I am a stickler for research—I came across James Huneker's whimsical guidebook New Cosmopolis (1915), the title conjuring DeLillo's. Joyce's chapters famously correspond to body organs (among other things), and Huneker's Baedeker has an anatomical bent: chapter titles invoke the city's eyes, "maw," brain. The first section so named is "The Lungs"—a look at the city's parks. Significantly, MacK's lungs will be his ruin. ("Central Park," he notes, "is a god and also the abode of the god.") To live in the city is to breathe it in, to absorb it as memory and literature, as well as wa(l)king life: you take in the air, which is how we get inspiration.

Assistance: Jennifer Holmes, Darren Reidy

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