Breathless and drunk on modernity, childish, bawdy, and at times inscrutably theoretical, social critic Paul Goodman’s epic lurches through three decades of war-addled New York. Divided chronologically into four books serialized in the ’40s and ’50s, the novel moves episodically and unpredictably. Book one opens on protagonist Horatio Alger cruising a cash-poor Dutch millionaire at a newsstand. The gentleman happens to be dating Horatio’s sister, and through this fortuity, Horatio comes to be adopted by the city’s über-capitalist, Eliphaz—who, having gone mad trying to live literally by the rules set out in Das Kapital, is out to convert all use value into exchange value.
That’s the last sensible thing that happens. From there, the book disintegrates into a furious system of parables for mid-century political life told through Horatio and his friends. But unlike other poets of erosion, Goodman loved people, and it’s this exuberance that makes The Empire City a classic city novel. He recognized early that an expressive gesture in a war-shocked culture necessitated a revolt against reality. The prose roils with Brechtian songs, stanzas, news bulletins, upside-down words, backward passages, diagrams, and the continuous appearance of Goodman (at one point Horatio gets jealous because his girlfriend seems to be dressing to attract him). The story encompasses cannibals (who do it for the humanitarian implications), people who levitate, a guy who eludes jail because the judge thinks he has “hot nuts,” and numerous love affairs, one between a brother and sister, which yields a son promptly eaten by a tiger at the Central Park Zoo. At times the book is unhinged, unfocused, interminable, but Goodman convinces the reader that the stunning parts wouldn’t be nearly so without these failures—the test of the experimental novel.
The book works as a psychological thumbprint of the generation that joined things, a retort to American realism, a paean to friendship, a gesture of despair, a tribute to public sex, but at heart, it’s most intriguing as a bid to prove that the geography of a city (and a culture) and the mental corridors of its inhabitants are one and the same. Sadly, in this reissue, you miss the dawn of book five, in which the sanctified child of two characters rides the unicorn off a tapestry in the Cloisters, gallops to Ireland to chastise Saint Peter, frees the Loch Ness monster, and travels with him to Venice, where the child displays his blue aura to a crowd in a piazza. But you somehow get the feeling of this event throughout what remains, which seems to be Goodman’s point as well: to assemble symbol next to symbol, as in dreams, the images only meaning something in the feeling they leave with you when you wake up.