Thursday, May 7, 2009

'Brooklyn looms large in Colm Tóibín's literal universe

By Meredith Deliso

(Published in the 5.27 issue of 24/Seven)

Growing up in Enniscorthy in Ireland, Colm Tóibín would hear of a neighbor’s daughter who went to Brooklyn.

“[The mother] didn’t say ‘to the U.S. Or New York. She kept saying ‘Brooklyn, Brooklyn, Brooklyn, she went to Brooklyn,’” remembers the author. “I didn’t know where Brooklyn was. But the words stayed in my mind.”

For his sixth novel, the author, twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize, with “The Master” and “The Blackwater Lightship,” took that and expanded on the idea, telling the story of Eilis Lacey, a young woman who leaves her small town to pursue a job, falls and love and comes of age in Brooklyn.

Brooklyn,” out on Scribner, opens in the same town Tóibín grew up in. It’s the early 1950s, and Lacey, though bright, is having trouble finding a job. A priest offers to sponsor her on a trip to Brooklyn, and so she departs, saying goodbye to her mother, sister and brothers, surviving the harrowing week-long boat ride across the Atlantic, and arriving in New York.

She lands in Cobble Hill, working at a department store on Fulton Street (not Macy’s, but named Bartocci’s), and also attending, like many a hard-working immigrant to New York City before her, night classes at Brooklyn College.

“I wanted to make it clear she has an interesting mind – she has a good head for figures,” says the author. “In any other world, she could have been a lawyer or an accountant.”

Lacey becomes engrossed in this world of work and school, pouring over textbooks, impressing her bosses and interested in the fashions of the time, on display by customers and at parish hall dances.

“It was the whole business of how women’s clothes were changing,” says Tóibín. “It reminded me of how my aunts used to talk.”

She’s so enthralled in the immediacy of her surroundings – going over in her head each night the day’s events to better recount them to her family back home in letters – that she is naïve of the greater context. The changing race relations of the time, as more and more African Americans were moving into Brooklyn and older immigrants were shipping out to Long Island – are lost on her, as are events such as the Holocaust, which, growing up post-World War II, she was completely unaware of.

“She’s Irish in that sense,” says Tóibín, who creates a view of Brooklyn solely seen through Lacey’s observant, curious eyes. “She just hadn’t been involved. Identity politics – she doesn’t know anything about that, doesn’t know about race in America. She also doesn’t know much about the Holocaust – that’s what’s happening elsewhere.”

Another thing she doesn’t know much about – baseball. Her Italian boyfriend, Tony, brings her a bit outside of her world, to Coney Island in the summer, to his Bensonhurst railroad apartment he shares with his family, and to Ebbets Field to see the Dodgers play while in their prime. While most around her, even her landlady, are enthralled by the game – going wild to the tune “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?” and over the Giants rivalry – Lacey would rather be watching hurling.

To portray life during the early 1950s in Brooklyn, Tóibín found books like Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer’s “It Happened in Brooklyn: An Oral History of Growing Up in the Borough in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s” especially helpful, as well as other books on baseball that “give a picture of the society – especially the society of Ebbets Field.” He also walked the streets of Cobble Hill and down Fulton Street, as well as drew inspiration from a church he attends somewhat frequently – St. Boniface at 190 Duffield St. – which, though not in the immediate area of Lacey’s world, was what he had in mind when he had his character going to mass and its hall for dances.

With such a Cobble Hill-centric story, the neighborhood’s Book Court couldn’t be a more fitting location for a reading by Tóibín, who will be there May 13 to read from his latest novel. “I think it was well chosen,” says the author.

When not in Ireland, in Dublin or Wexford, or teaching Irish literature and creative writing at Princeton University, Tóibín can be found in the charming neighborhood, going to mass at St. Boniface Church and then a pub around the corner, or visiting with his friend, writer Robert Sullivan, the author most recently of “The Thoreau You Don’t Know.”

“Brooklyn is sort of where everyone lives,” says the author. “If you’re in Manhattan, you’re in exile from Brooklyn.”

Colm Tóibín reads from”Brooklyn” May 13 at Book Court (163 Court St.) at 7 p.m. You can catch him the following night as well at 192 Books (192 10th Ave. in Manhattan) at 7 p.m.
Brooklyn” comes out May 5 on Scribner and costs $25.


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