Elizabeth Gaffney's magnificent, Dickensian Metropolis captures the splendor and violence of America's greatest city in the years after the Civil War, as young immigrants climb out of urban chaos and into the American dream.
On a freezing night in the middle of winter, Gaffney's nameless hero is suddenly awakened by a fire in P. T. Barnum's stable, where he works and sleeps, and soon finds himself at the center of a citywide arson investigation.
Determined to clear his name and realize the dreams that inspired his hazardous voyage across the Atlantic, he will change his identity many times, find himself mixed up with one of the city's toughest and most enterprising gangs, and fall in love with a smart, headstrong, and beautiful young woman. Buffeted by the forces of fate, hate, luck, and passion, our hero struggles to build a life-just to stay alive-in a country that at first held so much promise for him.
Epic in sweep, Metropolis follows our hero from his arrival in New York harbor through his experiences in Barnum's circus, the criminal underground, and the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, and on to a life in Brooklyn that is at once unique and poignantly emblematic of the American experience. In a novel that is wonderfully written, rich in suspense, vivid historical detail, breathtakingly paced, Elizabeth Gaffney captures the wonder and magic of a rambunctious city in a time of change. Metropolis marks a superb fiction debut.
Paris Review advisory editor Gaffney crafts a richly atmospheric debut in which a bewildered immigrant loses his heart to a tough Irish lass in 1860s New York. Introduced first as "the stableman," the young hero finally identified as Frank Harris fled his native Germany to start a new life. But he's quickly framed by a master criminal and arsonist, then kidnapped by Beatrice O'Gamhna and told he must join the notorious Whyo gang--or else. Frank's luck veers from terrible to wonderful and back again in this suspenseful novel, and the jobs he acquires--laying cobblestones, working in sewers, building the Brooklyn Bridge--allow Gaffney to describe the burgeoning activity of a city absorbing its immigrants into projects that increase the power of the metropolis. Her portrait of the real but poorly documented Whyo gang gives them a handsome, despicable leader, his seemingly benign but powerful mother and a secret means of communicating described in Asbury's The Gangs of New York. Two graduates of the Women's Medical College who offer abortions to poor women, a black Civil War veteran who befriends Frank, and a benevolent business man with Dickensian resonances add more period color. While it never attains the narrative urgency of Doctorow's evocations of 19th-century New York, the novel's well-researched historical background, enlivened by descriptions of the criminal underworld and the off-beat love story, should ensure wide interest.
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February 13, 2006
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Excerpt from Metropolis by Elizabeth Gaffney
"Hot corn, get your hot corn!
Her voice cut through the clamor of Broadway but attracted no customers as she made her way south through the teeming crowd, bouncing her basket on her hip. When she reached the gates of the old fort known as Castle Garden, where the immigration center was, she flashed a smile at the guard, entered the premises and quickly sold her corn, several dozen ears, to the usual cast of hollow-cheeked immigrants. The stuff had been dried on the cob in the fall and had to be soaked two full days before boiling, but even so, it had tasted good to her, five years back, after the unrelenting porridge of the passage from Dublin. Here and there, ears that had been stripped clean lay discarded in the dirt, kicked up against the pillars, along with every other sort of garbage.
So she d sold her corn, but it didn t earn her much, just pennies a piece. She didn't mind. Selling hot corn wasn t why she d come. Hot-corn girls were notorious for rounding out their incomes by stepping into corners and lifting their skirts upon request, but that wasn t the sort of compromise Beatrice had chosen to make. She d found another way to save up the money to bring her younger brother over, and to keep her dignity, too.
That was fine, miss, said a boy, politely swallowing a belch. Have you got any more
He was just about her brother s age. Her voice had sounded that Irish when she had first arrived. Now it was more flexible; she could show her brogue or not, depending on the situation. She let her voice lilt just enough to tell him he was at home there, too, but her answer was no, and she didn t crack a smile. She had too much to do to linger with him.
She and her friend Fiona generally hit the disembarking passengers together. They were good, the two of them, could make more money as a pair than the rest of the girls in the gang put together, not least because they had fun doing it. They d never been arrested, not even once. The jobs they pulled brought in plenty of money, but half the take went to their boss, just for starters, and then they split the rest between them. It was better than piecework, but it was taking too long for her to save up enough for Padric s ticket. She worried about what would become of him if she didn't send for him soon. And so she had been pleased to learn that morning that Fiona was needed to help on another job, leaving Beatrice free to go out solo. A small lie or two when the gang did their weekly accounts would mean she could keep four times as much as on a usual day, bringing Padric over that much faster. The only problem was, it was also far more perilous, since it wasn t just the cops she had to worry about, but the boss as well. He would break her fingers if he ever discovered she d kept his cut for herself.
She took a sharp breath and stashed her basket behind a vast pile of luggage. The day was raw, and she was freezing. To do what she was going to do, she needed her hands to be warm and nimble. Her fingers fluttered in the dank harbor air, then vanished into her dress, leaving the sleeves of her overcoat dangling empty. Her hands darted past cheap gabardine and worn shirting and came to nestle in the heat, the musk, the fine damp hairs of her armpits. Soon her fingers were starting to feel warm. But her arms were trussed, and all she could do, when a gust of wind worked a copper strand loose from its braid and whipped it in her face, was snort and shake her head. Through it all, she watched the steamship s tenders as they were loaded up with trunks, then passengers.