Thursday, July 14, 2016

Dreamland by Kevin Baker

Today, I will attempt a rare but not impossible feat.  I will review an e-book.  I know, some people review e-books all the time, like good e-book reading citizens.  As for me, my best motivator for reviewing a book, you know, aside from actually liking it, is to, uh, get rid of the book and make space for more, um, other books.  Understandably, that makes the payout for reviewing e-books somewhat less awesome because, obviously, I think I'll probably hang on to my Kindle and all its hundreds of unread cheap e-book deals for as long as it will have me.

Nonetheless, I read this chunkster of a book by Kevin Baker, Dreamland.  Happily, since I read it on the Kindle, its 657 or so pages didn't intimidate me into reading something shorter.  I'm glad its largesse didn't scare me away due to its e-book format, because I highly enjoyed this story of early 20th century New York.

Dreamland, titled after the Coney Island amusement park of the same name that was in its heyday at the time, starts with a tale from Trick the Dwarf about a bizarre twist of fate and the love story that resulted.  The story then mushrooms out to take in the points of view of a couple notorious New York City gangsters, a factory girl involved in early union activity, a prostitute, a Tammany Hall politician, and, oddly enough, Dr. Sigmund Freud.  With these characters, Kevin Baker vividly brings to life the downtown New York of the early 1900s, plagued by crime and poverty but also somehow larger than life and full of possibility.

He was astonished, for the first time, to see how many people there were and how fast they were moving.  Straddling each avenue were high steel girders, pylons holding up the trains that raced madly through the night, sometimes two at a time, in opposite directions, until they made the whole street shake.  It was a frantic, crowded, nightmare world that he could not wait to join.

Baker's gangsters are based on real historical gang members, with their stories tweaked and their lives and motives re-humanized.  These gangsters disappoint their parents, immigrate from Eastern Europe in search of a better life that never seems to materialize.  They care for their sisters and their lovers, all in between killing and maiming.  Naturally, there is a love story, and a good one at that, between an exiled gangster and the girl he meets on Coney Island.  There is no small amount of crooked politicking.  There is disturbing violence, both random, provoked, and shocking, in the case of the early labor movement. 

With Dreamland, Baker paints a picture of a city struggling through its many growing pains and trying to come of age.  While there were definitely some storylines I could have easily done without (adios doctors Freud and Jung - what are you guys doing here anyway?), I was, for the most part, totally taken in by Dreamland and its gritty, larger than life portrait of New York City at a pivotal point in historyBaker ably breathes life into each of his many characters and marches them steadily toward an explosive conclusion that expertly weaves many narrative strands into one pivotal day on Coney Island. 

"A magnified Prater," he sniffed to Ferenczi and Brill, referring to the cheesy midway in the Vienna park - but the Prater was like a summer garden party compared to this.  Everything louder, bigger, more hysterical - more American.

I'll definitely be picking up Kevin Baker's other fiction about this time period since he made reading 657 pages seem like a pleasant walk in the park instead of the slog I'm used to expecting out of long books (when I'm such a very slow reader).

No disclaimer - I bought this for my Kindle at a price not exceeding $2.99, if I know me at all.


  1. I finding writing about ebooks hard because I can't flip through them. I can tell you enjoyed this one!

    1. That's definitely another pitfall of reviewing ebooks. I at least had the sense highlight a couple passages to reference this time around. I usually forget and regret it!

  2. I love when an author can make a long book fly by. And I love reading long books on my kindle. It helps to not see the size Everyting I pick it up to read.

  3. I usually only read chunksters by Stephen King, but I like that this is about NY and Coney Island, so I may give it a try.