There are eight million stories in the naked city, as the saying goes. Over the decades, New York City has been the setting for thousands of such stories: from hard-boiled detective fiction to great works of literature. Please Kill Me publisher Gillian McCain recently spoke with novelist and poet Michael Friedman about his thoughts on great novels set in NYC.
Friedman’s most recent book is Martian Dawn and Other Novels (2015), an omnibus collection of three novels that includes a reissue of his 2006 cult novel, Martian Dawn. From 1986 to 2008 he edited the influential literary journal Shiny. He grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and lived on East Twelfth Street for six years before moving to Boulder in 1995 and then Denver in 1997.
Here is his list of ten great novels set in NYC.
TEN GREAT NEW YORK CITY NOVELS by Michael Friedman
1. The Serialist by David Gordon (2010)
The targets of Gordon’s satire in his droll detective novel send-up include the New York literary scene, East Side private schools, Jewish mothers and the porn industry. Narrator and Queens native Harry Bloch is a struggling writer barely staying afloat by penning genre fiction under a variety of pseudonyms. He does it all: porn, sci-fi, detective novels, inner-city African-American fiction, etc. His biggest success is his vampire series, written under the name Sybelline Lorindo-Gold. Meanwhile, to make ends meet he tutors smart-alecky Manhattan high-school students on the side. When he receives a fan letter from a notorious serial killer on death row in Sing Sing, he is drawn into a real-life intrigue.
2. Inferno (A Poet’s Novel) by Eileen Myles (2010)
Myles has such a great sensibility and is so astute that I am happy to go wherever she leads me. She is also a distinctive prose stylist. An elliptical fictionalized memoir, Inferno tracks Eileen as she arrives in NYC from Boston in the seventies, makes her way as a poet among the talented circle around The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, finds love. It takes guts to be as honest as Myles is, and the book is affecting. The character sketches sprinkled throughout (Rene Ricard, Ted Berrigan, among others) are just so well-drawn.
3. Latin Moon in Manhattan by Jaime Manrique (1992)
Manrique is a native of Colombia who has lived in NYC for years. Latin Moon in Manhattan is a wonderfully off-kilter comic novel that is also sweetly lyrical, a rare combination. It chronicles Santiago Martinez’s adventures as he bounces between relatives-from-Hell in Little Colombia in Jackson Heights and his more unbuttoned life in Manhattan.
4. Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries 1971–1973 by Jim Carroll (1987)
Carroll grew up in an Irish-American enclave in the Inwood neighborhood in Manhattan and went to high school at Trinity, the Upper West Side prep school, where he was a basketball star―something he documented in his earlier fictionalized memoir, The Basketball Diaries. Forced Entries finds him making the scene Downtown (the Factory, Max’s, The Poetry Project), attending parties, hanging out with poets (Bill Berkson, Ted Berrigan, Ginsberg), being cornered by brazen hussies intent on jumping his bones (and displaying surprising resourcefulness!), shooting up. Carroll’s unadorned sentences and playful humor are a delight, and there’s a winning, picaresque quality to his vignettes.
5. Great Expectations by Kathy Acker (1982)
Long live the seventies and eighties―and the Mudd Club and Semiotext(e)! Acker grew up in Manhattan. This first-person novel reads as if assembled from a variety of found texts―including Dickens and porn―that have been altered, repurposed and loosely woven together. The resulting work is full of surprising juxtapositions. Fictional letters to several Downtown luminaries of the day (Sylvère Lotringer, Steve Maas) are inventive and hilarious. I am a big fan of the sophisticated insouciance and bad-taste esthetic of the whole enterprise.
6. Weird Fucks by Lynne Tillman (1980)
I love the central conceit of Tillman’s breezy novella composed in faux dime-novel prose. Set largely in the East Village and its environs, Weird Fucks is a matter-of-fact, episodic first-person catalog of seedy sexual encounters and brief relationships with an unlikely assortment of men. There are parties, art houses (Bleecker Street Cinema), greasy spoons (B&H Dairy), trips to the Greek islands, London, Amsterdam, Maine.
7. Time and Again by Jack Finney (1970)
Time and Again is a science fiction classic of the time-travel subgenre by the author of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Recruited by a secret government organization for an important mission, graphic artist Si Morley travels back to 1882 Manhattan, where Trinity Church is the tallest building and The Dakota sits alone on a rise overlooking Central Park. The book is an entertaining page-turner featuring intrigue, romance and a cool re-creation of nineteenth-century NYC.
8. Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep by Ludwig Bemelmans (1944)
This slyly funny confection is little-known today and long out-of-print. Remembered chiefly for writing and illustrating the Madeline children’s books set in Paris, Bemelmans (a native of the Tyrol who settled in the US) was a witty, accomplished writer of fiction and non-fiction (including Hotel Bemelmans and My War with the United States). He was even commissioned by The Carlyle Hotel to create the mural that still adorns the Bemelmans Bar. The novel follows the travels of a wealthy, eccentric South American general (Leonidas Erosa) and his entourage: chef, valet, native servant, a loopy English governess (Miss Graves, secretly in love with the general), and his taciturn mistress (Madame Lopez). After a prologue in Biarritz and aboard ship, the main act transpires at an East Side luxury hotel against the backdrop of Manhattan café society, before the book concludes with an epilogue in a remote corner of Ecuador.
9. The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett (1933)
Nick and Nora Charles reside in The Normandy, the NYC art deco apartment building. They consume an inordinate number of cocktails, exchange witty banter, and frequent speakeasies and nightclubs. In the meantime, Nick manages to solve the mysterious disappearance of inventor Clyde Wynant. The cast of characters includes Wynant’s fetching daughter, his ex-wife (a former flame of Nick’s, no less) and her new husband, his mistress, his lawyer, several gangsters, and a police captain, and as the plot unfolds it turns out that a few of these folks may not be what they seem… Hammett keeps things moving with spare exposition and sparkling dialogue.
10. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920)
Wharton was born and raised in her family’s brownstone on Twenty-third Street. Set in the 1870s, when the area north of Thirtieth Street was the sticks, this novel of manners examines the codes and customs of an insular world of old-money Manhattan families. The plot focuses on Newland Archer’s efforts to navigate a love triangle shortly after becoming engaged. In measured prose, the author sizes up a bygone age and caste.