Wednesday, May 22, 2019
Books: "Westside," A Classic New York Tale By W.M. Akers
By W.M. Akers
Harper Voyager; Morrow Avon; hardcover; $22.99
W.M. Akers is an award-winning playwright, Narratively editor, and the creator of the bestselling game Deadball: Baseball With Dice.
Akers, who lives in Brooklyn, has written his debut novel, Westside, a captivating, one-of-a-kind story that brings a historic New York City mystery to light. He builds a world that is familiar yet transformed, with Broadway swathed in deep moss and Washington Square Park a teeming jungle.
This book had a lot of timely elements, as you can see the themes of gentrification and borders, and age old questions of good and bad, darkness and light.
It's 1921, New York is dying, and a thirteen-mile fence running the length of Broadway splits the island of Manhattan, separating the prosperous East Side from the Westside as a turf war builds.
The Westside is an overgrown wasteland whose hostility to modern technology gives it the flavor of old New York. It has also become the natural home to the gritty underbelly of the city, where a host of strange occurrences and even stranger characters thrive. This is where people, buildings, and everyday objects have vanished in a hellish wasteland with its own set of social rubrics. The respectable are long gone, while what remains are the killers, thieves, poets, painters, drunks, and those too poor or desperate to leave.
Akers writes of the Westside, "The vanishings started slowly. A man set out for a growler of beer and never came back. A young lover glanced over his shoulder for a parting look at his sweetheart and saw that she was gone. The story was always the same: someone alone in the dark, alone where she should not be, turned a dangerous corner and was never seen again. Such cases were not taken seriously by the police or the public - until the drip became a flood.
"I know the figures by heart:
"174 vanished in 1903 - hardly more than normal.
"In 1905, nearly 300.
"In 1907, 419.
"In 1909, 912.
"At first, the vanishings were written off as an unfortunate off-shoot of a nationwide spike in a crime. The mayor's office blamed bad gin, bad water, bad hygiene, and the simple savagery of the Westside gangs. The press blamed immigrants, the poor, white slavers, and suicide. The religious blamed the devil; the superstitious blamed the night itself. There were rumors of monstrous creatures that crept out of the subway tunnels, of an army of corpses that lived in the sewers, of a cadre of killers that roamed the dark. But by all civilized people, the barbaric Westsiders were blamed for destroying their own, for making their once-charming neighborhood an uninhabitable hell.
"No matter the actual reason - and I wouldn't be surprised if it was all of these things, or none at all - the Westside was alone. No one listened when we called for help. No one listened until children began to die...
"The fence went up without debate, without warning, without ceremony. The Westside went to sleep and awoke behind quarantine. Thirteen miles of fence sprung up down the middle of Broadway, a tourniquet on a limb that had already lost too much blood. At first it was wood, but wood was soon replaced by iron, steel, and barbed wire. As far as New York was concerned, the Westside no longer existed - and neither did the fifty or sixty thousand too brave or mad or desperate to flee, who stayed behind the fence, intent on living their lives."
The story is told through the voice of the only woman who can save Manhattan is twenty-seven-year old detective Gilda Carr. Though she can navigate both sides of this fractured city with ease, this task requires her to turn away from the piddling cases that typically consume her time and serve as a distraction from the impossible question: "how did her father die?"
Gilda walks in the footsteps of her late father, a police detective turned private eye. She is led by the riddle of Mrs. Copeland's missing glove, and she is reluctant to confront the westside mire of bootlegging, smuggling, and corruption. She tries to turn her back on the case, but a merchant's murder drags her back into the action.
As Gilda begins to see the connection between the murder, her father's death, and the darkness that's plunging the Westside, she knows she must step up to save her city, or die along with it.
Westside is enlivened by its clever dialogue, with such lines from Gilda as, "it's the tiny mysteries that destroy us." The novel is steeped in the supernatural and shot through with gunfights, rotgut whiskey, and sizzling Dixieland jazz.
To find out more about Akers, check out wmakers.net and on Twitter @ouijim.