Book review: America emerges as global power in Manhattan Beach
Secrets are at the heart of Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach, a book that is a combination noir thriller and historical novel.
Its central character is Anna Kerrigan who we first meet in 1934, when she is twelve years old and paying a visit with her father to Dexter Styles. Her father works for a corrupt union and Dexter Styles is an important man whom Anna senses her father fears. The visit is being paid in the hopes that Anna’s father can find work with Styles.
Styles lives in two worlds, having access to the back rooms of organized crime and the wood-paneled private clubs of the ruling elite. He is a semi-legitimate gangster who owns nightclubs but has managed to marry into a moneyed, blue-blooded New York family.
As the book progresses, Anna’s father disappears without a trace leaving her as the main financial support for her mother and brain damaged younger sister. The United States has entered the Second World War and with able-bodied men being called up for service, Anna is able to find work in the Brooklyn naval yards.
Through sheer determination and technical competence Anna is able to overcome intense opposition from her naval bosses and become the first female diver working in the yards.
One night, while out on the town with friends Anna runs into Dexter Styles, whom she believes knows something about the disappearance of her father. He does not connect the young woman Anna has become with the 12-year-old he met several years before. Anna thinks it better to keep her identity a secret in the hopes that she may be able to find out what happened to her father.
As the story progresses, the relationship between Styles and Anna deepens and we learn more about his past and how he came to be a gangster and what it cost him. We are introduced to Mr. Q a seemingly benign figure who is in fact a ruthless and calculating underworld boss.
Like Mr. Q, the characters in Manhattan Beach are never entirely what they seem and secrets abound. As Anna’s father says at the beginning of the novel “it is best never to reveal a fact about yourself if you can avoid it”.
Ironically, it is Styles, a man who prides himself on knowing what’s what, who pays the biggest price for failing to understand the changes that are taking place.
Manhattan Beach offers a view of America as it emerges from the insular 1930s to its position as a global power. As Styles’ father-in-law says, “The Great War left us a creditor nation. As bankers, we must anticipate what changes this war will thrust upon us.” He foresees a world dominated by American money and power.
It also anticipates the social changes that were coming in the aftermath of the war. Anna represents the progress that the war made possible for women as they joined the workforce in greater numbers and took on jobs that had long been forbidden.
Basil Guinane is a retired associate dean of the School of Media Studies at Humber college, a former librarian and an avid reader.