Ghosts of New York by Jim Lewis


I’ve just finished a book that will be in my favorites list this year, perhaps at the very top. I found it in the NYT list of 100 notable books of 2021.

The aspect of the book that I loved most was the web of connections among the characters that becomes apparent as you read the vignettes. The connections often are fleeting and not always key to the plot. For example the book begins by describing  a connection between Dominic and a nameless older man he meets on the street at night. Dominic’s only other appearance is a brief one as the never-home roommate of Mike, who we get to know as the college boyfriend of Bridget. Much later, at a time when Mike has married someone else and has two children, we learn that Bridget was a friend of Stephanie beginning in those years, except during the time when Bridget was living with Mike. The characters are all connected by this gossamer web; in some cases they barely register in each other’s lives. Yet the connections among all the characters make them all that much more real and tangible.

Another aspect that I loved almost as much, well, maybe as much, was the author’s images that grab your attention. These, about New York City, put you right there in that amazing place:

  • There were so many people out walking that the city felt like a crowd with some buildings poking up out of it, rather than buildings with pedestrians in between.
  • On the sidewalk again, she felt like she’d been ejected into the rapids.
  • Dawn didn’t arrive there from the horizon:  it descended slowly from the sky, and the city still thought it was nighttime and the streetlights were on. This was the moment of soul’s first breath.
  • Then they walked. It was one of those nights when the city felt like a giant sports stadium, brighter than any day, with every motion, every stride, every smile six or seven times as large as life.
  • A lovely city, she said, and at first I thought she was being sarcastic:  up the street there was an ambulance parked, the lights on top flashing but no siren going; a subway rumbled underfoot, passing beneath a grating and leaving in its wake a blast of train-breath. But when I looked over at her, I saw that her eyes were raised to the windows of the skyscrapers, and she was right:  it was a sight, no less so for the fact that I’d been living under it all my life.

That phrase “train-breath”! Oh yes, I know train-breath!

The time period of individual stories varies over decades and the overarching story is not revealed chronologically. Stephanie is a character whose life we drop into over decades, but there are clues to tell us which decade, like this one:  “… Stephanie moving restlessly about her apartment, tracing the extra-long cord of a powder-blue Princess phone.” The book is far from conventional:  the vignettes vary from short story length to one that is novella length. One chapter is told in the future tense. I enjoyed the slightly off balance feeling this gave me.

As I think about this book, I know there is yet another aspect that I loved very much:  the characters had wildly dramatic lives and yet became completely real to me. Johnny, Bridget, Stephanie, Mike, Benny, Caruso, and Matilda will rattle around in my head for a long time.

Jim Lewis, Ghosts of New York, West Virginia Press, 2021, 306 pages (I read the kindle version).

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