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  • Written by Elizabeth Gaffney
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A Novel

Written by Elizabeth GaffneyAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Elizabeth Gaffney

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On Sale: March 01, 2005
Pages: | ISBN: 978-1-58836-457-9
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

On a freezing night in the middle of a New York winter, a young immigrant is suddenly awakened by a fire in P. T. Barnum’s stable, where he works and sleeps, and soon finds himself at the center of a citywide arson investigation. Determined to clear his name and realize the dreams that inspired his hazardous voyage to America, he will change his identity many times, find himself mixed up with one of the city’s toughest and most enterprising gangs, and fall in love with a smart, headstrong, and beautiful woman. Buffeted by the forces of fate, hate, luck, and passion, our hero struggles to build a life–and just to stay alive–on an epic journey that is at once unique and poignantly emblematic of the American experience.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

1.

CASTLE GARDEN


"Hot corn, get your hot corn!”

Her voice cut through the clamor of Broadway but attracted no customers as she made her way south through the teeming crowd, bouncing her basket on her hip. When she reached the gates of the old fort known as Castle Garden, where the immigration center was, she flashed a smile at the guard, entered the premises and quickly sold her corn, several dozen ears, to the usual cast of hollow-cheeked immigrants. The stuff had been dried on the cob in the fall and had to be soaked two full days before boiling, but even so, it had tasted good to her, five years back, after the unrelenting porridge of the passage from Dublin. Here and there, ears that had been stripped clean lay discarded in the dirt, kicked up against the pillars, along with every other sort of garbage.

So she’d sold her corn, but it didn’t earn her much, just pennies a piece. She didn’t mind. Selling hot corn wasn’t why she’d come. Hot-corn girls were notorious for rounding out their incomes by stepping into corners and lifting their skirts upon request, but that wasn’t the sort of compromise Beatrice had chosen to make. She’d found another way to save up the money to bring her younger brother over, and to keep her dignity, too.

“That was fine, miss,” said a boy, politely swallowing a belch. “Have you got any more?”

He was just about her brother’s age. Her voice had sounded that Irish when she had first arrived. Now it was more flexible; she could show her brogue or not, depending on the situation. She let her voice lilt just enough to tell him he was at home there, too, but her answer was no, and she didn’t crack a smile. She had too much to do to linger with him.

She and her friend Fiona generally hit the disembarking passengers together. They were good, the two of them, could make more money as a pair than the rest of the girls in the gang put together, not least because they had fun doing it. They’d never been arrested, not even once. The jobs they pulled brought in plenty of money, but half the take went to their boss, just for starters, and then they split the rest between them. It was better than piecework, but it was taking too long for her to save up enough for Padric’s ticket. She worried about what would become of him if she didn’t send for him soon. And so she had been pleased to learn that morning that Fiona was needed to help on another job, leaving Beatrice free to go out solo. A small lie or two when the gang did their weekly accounts would mean she could keep four times as much as on a usual day, bringing Padric over that much faster. The only problem was, it was also far more perilous, since it wasn’t just the cops she had to worry about, but the boss as well. He would break her fingers if he ever discovered she’d kept his cut for herself.

She took a sharp breath and stashed her basket behind a vast pile of luggage. The day was raw, and she was freezing. To do what she was going to do, she needed her hands to be warm and nimble. Her fingers fluttered in the dank harbor air, then vanished into her dress, leaving the sleeves of her overcoat dangling empty. Her hands darted past cheap gabardine and worn shirting and came to nestle in the heat, the musk, the fine damp hairs of her armpits. Soon her fingers were starting to feel warm. But her arms were trussed, and all she could do, when a gust of wind worked a copper strand loose from its braid and whipped it in her face, was snort and shake her head. Through it all, she watched the steamship’s tenders as they were loaded up with trunks, then passengers.

The first-class passengers had long since gone through a genteel version of immigration and customs on shipboard; their tender landed them at a well-appointed West Side terminal, not Castle Garden. Steerage would be last off, as usual. But a ship this size carried people of every level of wealth and class, and her targets, the second-class passengers, would be the first to disembark here. As the tender bumped against the pilings, Beatrice extracted her hands from her armpits, stuck them nonchalantly back through her sleeves into her pockets and began to move. Her eye followed the parade of ribboned hats and horn-handled canes that parted the crowds in the frigid brick rotunda.

“As if there weren’t enough of these people already,” said a woman in a high velvet toque with a nervous thrust of her chin at the crowds of steerage passengers from earlier ships. Her husband winced and nodded. They’d just spent the season in London. Before the war, they had traveled first class and never had to set foot in Castle Garden, but most of her money was Southern—which was to say diminished since the War Between the States—and they’d been forced to make concessions.

Beatrice shed her hat, let down the braids that had been twisted under it and adjusted her posture and face in subtle ways that stripped her of nearly a decade in a handful of seconds: She was suddenly quite a little girl. The second-class couple emerged at the north gate, relieved, with sighs and murmurs of “Ah, New York, so good to be home!” At the curb, while the coachman raised their trunks to his roof rack and the gentleman made to hand his lady up onto the tufted leather carriage bench, Beatrice pressed forward. With her hand outstretched, she said, “Welcome to America, sir, miss! Have you anything extra to help me and my ailing mother?”

The couple looked away—he to the side, his wife to him. That was the trick, of course: to force them to look away.

Beatrice’s fingers were as fast as her eyes seemed innocent. Watches were her specialty, but this time she focused on the lady, who wore a pin on her lapel that reminded Beatrice of her mother’s long-gone gold-rimmed brooch. She wasn’t sure how good it was, how much it would bring, so she also grabbed the silk and suede wallet that protruded from the gentlewoman’s muff, which turned out to be bulging at the seams, though some of the currency was foreign. Then Beatrice was gone, and the couple was grateful. The horse left a loamy turd steaming on the pavement as it strained against its harness. The wheels ground forward. They were halfway home before they realized what they’d lost, at which point Beatrice was just pushing through the swinging doors of Marm Mandelbaum’s pawnshop, wondering what price she’d have to accept on the brooch in exchange for the old shrew’s discretion.



2.

INFERNO


Asleep in the dark, with his limbs tucked up against his belly for warmth, he had made himself small, just a fetal lump in the middle of his narrow pallet. His blankets were topped by his overcoat, and he’d tucked the whole pile tightly around himself to keep it from sliding off into the night. The floor of the tack room had been strewn with hay, the wall by the bed decorated with a couple of nails from which, on warmer nights, he might have hung his clothes. The horseshoe propped upright on a crossbeam above his head was a relic of a previous tenant’s superstitions. There was little in that room to suggest who he was, this stableman, except perhaps the worn cashmere and shredded silk lining of his coat—it had been a fine garment, once. And on the narrow shelf made by another beam, a bowie knife and a few whittled figurines: a bear, a gorilla and a strange hybrid creature, like a griffin, but of his own imagining, composed of assorted parts of the exotic creatures he cared for.

It was no ordinary stable where he worked. The horse stalls were inhabited not by hacks but by dancing white Arabians, and there were no cows at all, but an orangutan, a giraffe, a python, a tiger. He had never expected this land of dreams to be quite so dreamlike, so uncanny. The job he had landed through the Labor Exchange was certainly not what he’d imagined doing in America when he’d left home. What he wanted to do was build cathedrals or, barring such glory, churches, houses, even roads. That was his training and, what with the constant stream of immigration to New York, he’d been sure there would be work for a man with experience in the building trades. It hadn’t been so easy, though. So there he was at P. T. Barnum’s American Museum, shoveling dung and hay and whiling away his few bits of spare time carving figures from odd chunks of wood he found lying about.

His other possessions included a second shirt, some extra socks, a sack of apples and a guidebook to New York with a picture postcard tucked between its pages, one side showing an elegant bath hall at Baden-Baden, the other a stamp, a postmark from a decade before, a name and address, a message. His mother had sent her love, said the weather was fine, she was feeling much better and she would be home soon: the usual. Only the name above the address was notable—for its difference from the one by which the stableman was now known, on his documents and to his employers. He didn’t worry about anyone putting that together, though. Sometimes even he was incredulous at the great distance that lay between his present self and that boy who had been missed by his mother at Baden. How far was it from Germany to New York? He wasn’t exactly sure. It wasn’t a journey he’d ever meant to take. Things had happened to him, and he’d responded. Now he was here.

Was he happy? Not by a long shot. But not sad either. It was more that he was waiting for the next phase of his life to begin. In the meantime, his face and features were locked and shuttered like a shop at sundown, cinched tight like a burlap sack of onions with the drawstring knotted and wound around. When he was awake, he was cautiously optimistic—he’d landed on his feet more than once before. While he slept, he snored. And all around him in the stable, buzzing flies joined the noise, awakened from their quasihibernation by a warmth premature for the season and puzzlingly at odds with the weather outdoors.

That was the first alarm that something was amiss—a quiet one. The stableman was sleeping too deeply, dreaming too hard, to hear it. The clear screen of his cornea refracted the image of his optic nerve, and he saw backward into his own mind. The veins were like road maps leading to the time when he’d had a family, friends, a proper home. But that night the subject of the magic-lantern show flashing through his brain was nearer to hand: a sightseeing jaunt he’d taken on his last day off.

He’d been walking back from the Battery when he first saw the girl. She was an average young woman hawking corn from a basket. He’d just eaten. But suddenly he found he was hungry, even for one of those mushy lukewarm ears of corn. The stuff was sold on every street corner by hot-corn girls of every variety: black near Union Square and Irish at the Battery, German further north and east. Wherever he went in New York, there was always one of them singing the same song, but he’d never heard it sung so nonchalantly, so appealingly.

“Hot corn! Get your hot corn! Here’s your lily-white corn.”

And so a woman was conjured into being while he slept, conceived from his memory of seeing Beatrice on the street and a certain strain in the position of his limbs. But then the pleasure of the dream was stymied by the same frustration he’d felt that day at the crowded corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane. There she was, hawking her corn, but just when he’d nearly caught her, she slipped away from him into the crowd. In his sleep, in the tack room, which was filling now with smoke, he thrashed. Shouldn’t he get to taste her corn, if not to hold her, he wondered, at least in his dream? Something had ignited within him, just as the building he slept in so soundly was going up in fire. Oh well, there will be other hot-corn girls, he thought, never guessing, asleep or awake, that the skirts of his fate swished around that very hot-corn girl’s ankles.

She’d disappeared on him, but the heat she brought on remained. At least he was no longer cold, he thought, middream. He was standing before a roaring fire, a marble mantelpiece, a gleaming brass fender. He was back home in Germany, a boy in his father’s parlor. His mother was serving tea. But no, he’d gotten rid of his whole complicated past—or tried to. The dream flickered again.

He’d made it to the new world in steerage—no fine Meissen china anymore—and found himself a bed and a job. He was starting over. Barnum’s stable was a good enough place to wait for spring, when he could go out and look for building work. He thought of Raj, the Bengal tiger, who’d lain shivering in his fourth-story cage in the museum when last the stableman made his rounds. Of all the animals he cared for, Raj was the one he most identified with—his grace and frustration, his power and imprisonment, his obvious desire to burst forth and do something grander than slouch around Barnum’s. He could devour the world if he weren’t chained up in that cage. The stableman felt the same way. He was aware that, cold and poor as he was, the bottom was miles below. What he didn’t see, though, our stableman, was how close he lay to the edge of that abyss, how soon he was going to roll off into it.

That early March night had been frigid, so what then was this feeling that crept over him now—heat? Baking, burning heat. Could it be, he wondered, that he’d frozen to death? If so, he thought, Hell wasn’t quite what the faithful imagined. There was no settlement, no knowledge. Ignorance of Heaven and God persisted, but more cruelly—devoid now of any suspense or hope. Nor, yet, was it the nothingness that he’d expected.So what was going on? The smell of burning horsehair reached him next, and he glimpsed where he was: in a stable. Not Heaven, not Hell, not with the girl from his dream; but neither was this his father’s house in the city or his uncle’s farm. He began to identify the sounds that had roused him: animals’ screams, the trumpeting of an elephant, the banging of animal bodies into metal bars and latched stall doors. He was in the circus stable of Barnum’s Museum, on Broadway, in Manhattan. Yellow flames jetted up in one corner through the smoke that billowed around him. The splintery barn wall by his cot was hot against his cheek; dark wisps of smoke swirled into every orifice. Barnum’s was on fire.


From the Hardcover edition.
Elizabeth Gaffney

About Elizabeth Gaffney

Elizabeth Gaffney - Metropolis

Photo © Daphne Klein

Elizabeth Gaffney is the author of Metropolis. Her stories have appeared in literary magazines such as the Virginia Quarterly Review and the North American Review, and she has been a resident artist at Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and the Blue Mountain Center. A former staff editor at The Paris Review, Gaffney teaches fiction at The New School and serves as the editor-at-large of the literary magazine A Public Space.
Praise

Praise

“Rewarding . . . vivid tableaus and high drama . . . immigrant dreams and desires on the scrappy streets of Five Points.”
–The New York Times

“Engaged with history, artfully structured, told with dashing wit . . . full of passions and perils, desire and deceit . . . Metropolis teems with imagined life, as a good page-turner should.”
–San Jose Mercury News

“Brawny, old-school storytelling . . . a novel as strong and heady as the brew [Gaffney’s] rakes and roustabouts swill by the pint.”
–Newsweek

“Metropolis is more than a literary page-turner; it is also a coming-of-age story for a young and strapping New York.”
–Vanity Fair

“Engrossing . . . fraught with suspense.”
–Elle
Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Author

A Conversation with Elizabeth Gaffney

Question: What was the inspiration behind Metropolis? How did you
come up with this particular story and these characters?

Elizabeth Gaffney: My first two decisions were to write about a time different
from my own and to take up a male character as a protagonist. I
wanted to learn something while I was working on the novel and to get
away from the limitations of my own point of view. Where I stuck close to
home was in the setting—New York City. I was born here and have lived
here most of my life. In fact, I was interested in the idea of using the city as
one of the main characters right from the beginning. The title was one of
the first things to come to me. I chose a young, unlucky, struggling immigrant
character for my hero because I think everyone can relate to the difficulty
of creating an identity. It’s the biggest job we human beings have
during that trying period of puberty and adolescence—that’s why comingof-
age novels are so universal. By picking the 1870s as my time period, I was
trying to make the book a coming-of-age novel for the city and for the
nation, too. This was a time of grand infrastructure projects that still shape
our urban landscapes and allow us to sustain the population density that we
do. I chose an inspirational and very public structure that was built around
this time—the Brooklyn Bridge—to symbolize my character’s aspirations
and chose a hidden and generally unmentioned one—the sewer system
(also largely built in this period)—to represent the dark underbelly of experience
that my character would have to traverse and overcome to achieve
his goals. The late nineteenth century was also a time when a great wave of
immigrants came into our country, which necessitated the eventual opening
of Ellis Island as an immigration center. Immigrants have always been
at the heart of New York’s culture, and this whole country’s culture—we’re
almost all descended from immigrants, after all, except for Native Americans.
So I knew I would be writing about an immigrant. I decided to make
him German because I had spent time living in Germany and I knew the
country well. I made the other main character, Beatrice, Irish because Ireland
is a large part of my own heritage, and also because the Germans and
the Irish were the two largest immigrant groups during the period I chose
to write about.

Q: You use the same title as the great silent film by Fritz Lang. What sort
of connection do you see between your book and Lang’s Metropolis?

EG: I find Lang’s Metropolis to be a quintessential urban social drama,
and I was greatly inspired by it. For me, a futuristic vision like Lang’s is not
all that far from a historical narrative—both step away from the here and
now, but in so doing are capable of commenting on the present perhaps
more strongly than a story set among all the familiar features of our everyday
existence. Lang’s Metropolis combines the personal coming-of-age
story of its protagonist, a scion of the ruling class, together with a love story,
a story of social revolution and a story of a mad Frankenstein-like scientist’s
botched automaton—there are so many things going on. Like Siddhartha,
the hero is born into privilege and is at first entirely unaware of the poor laborer
class that makes his world possible. But once he learns that it exists,
he chooses to descend into that underground world, where he finds terrible
suffering and injustice, and he makes sacrifices to set things right. He
devotes himself to serving truth and justice, not the status quo. I can’t say
any of my characters are quite so saintlike or revolutionary, but I did partly
base the structure of my book—Harris’s being born to privilege and descending
into an underworld before he can rise up again—on that of
Lang’s Metropolis.

Q: What attracted you to this particular period in New York’s history? How
long did you research this book? What were some of your more interesting
or unexpected sources?

EG: The biggest things that drew me to the period (roughly the 1870s)
were the sewer system, which underwent a major renovation and expansion
then, and the Brooklyn Bridge, which was under construction at the
time. For me, those two elements of the city’s infrastructure were symbolic
of the unsavory hidden underworld and the highest possible intellectual
and artistic achievement of American society. Both were opportunities to
look deep into the lives of ordinary workingmen and women of the period
and what their lives were like. I chose not to write about the engineers or
the powerful politicians and financiers; rather, I wanted to take up the unsung
common people as my characters. The research was a lot of fun and I
was constantly discovering new facts throughout the seven years I spent
writing Metropolis. Sometimes what I found made me introduce substantial
plot changes into the book, so I could add interesting new details I had
just come across. For instance, when I read about the women’s medical college,
I knew I had to include it. That gave rise to two new characters who
are both important: the white doctor, Sarah Blacksall, and the black doctor,
Susan Smith—a real figure by the way, who practiced medicine for many
decades in Brooklyn, and elsewhere, after she married and moved away.

Q: The line between truth and fiction is blurred in Metropolis—many of
the people and places are real, while others are fictional and still others
seem somewhere in between. How did you decide what to use from history
and how did you make it your own creation? Who were some of the real
people from history that became characters in your book that the reader
might not have known?

EG: Aside from Susan Smith, there are many real characters in the book,
but not many famous ones, since I was seeking to document the other side
of society. A few well-known people, like P. T. Barnum, have walk-on roles,
but I was more captivated by stories like John Dolan’s, and that of the brush
manufacturer Mr. Noe. The murder that occurs towards the end of the
book is based on reality, and some of the details, including the monkeyheaded
cane that was the murder weapon, are drawn from contemporary
newspaper accounts or from books like Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New
York
. Piker Ryan, one of the Whyo gang members, was also a real person.
I saw a mug shot of him, and he was so dumb-looking and just so plain ugly
that I couldn’t let him lie. In general, I tried to use real stories I felt I could
adapt freely to my own, keeping a line of real material running through the
narrative, while not being too bound by facts. The balance I sought was
one that allowed for both a realistic portrayal of the times and a rollicking
good story.

Q: Why did you decide to have two villains, Dandy Johnny and Luther
Undertoe?

EG: I am interested in seeing how various people with similar backgrounds
can evolve differently. I suppose it’s a way of studying character. At
any rate, if you examine Johnny’s early childhood and compare it with
Luther’s, you will find that they were similar; both lost their fathers at an
early age and grew up in the rough world of the Five Points with morally
compromised immigrant mothers. But as villains, they are quite different.
Luther is pretty much a sociopath, while Johnny is a player, a criminal who
has charm and charisma to mask his dark side. I think having characters
who are variations on a theme is an interesting way of exploring the human
psyche. For that matter, Harris had a lot of the same setbacks as Johnny and
Undertoe, and is certainly led toward a life of crime, but he resists it, despite
some missteps, and remains a fundamentally moral, promising
human being. You could look at the central women characters and see similar
patterns among them, too. But each person reacts differently to the circumstances,
and that’s how you know what sort of person each is at her core.

Q: There are many strong women characters in the novel, but your hero is
male. How did you decide to go with a male main character? Was it difficult
to write from a male point of view?

EG: I set out to use a male protagonist as a sort of exercise, to get away from
my own point of view and limitations. That’s also why I chose to write a historical
novel. I wanted to learn something new and to expand my own horizons.
It turned out to be fascinating and illuminating. I wouldn’t have had
half as much fun or have learned nearly as much if I’d written about a thirtysomething
aspiring writer who lived in New York City. The way I see it, if I
was having fun as a writer, then there was a chance I could give some of that
same energy to my reader, so it was about keeping it interesting. That said,
I could easily borrow a line from Flaubert and say about Harris: “He is me.”
I relate to him on so many levels. That’s true of all the characters in the book,
bad and good. I’d never do what Undertoe does, but I have had impulses to
be cruel and destructive. I’ve been tempted to take my frustrations and troubles
out on others. I tried to tap into the full range of emotions I could imagine
and play them out to their extremes where they suited the story.

Q: Were the Whyos and the female counterpart gang the Why Nots based
on real gangs from the period? Is the Whyo language your creation?

EG: The Whyos was a real gang, and there were real girl gangs affiliated
with some New York gangs—including a group called the Forty Little
Thieves, who worked with a gang called the Forty Thieves. But I made up
the Why Nots. As for the Whyo language, it is based on the record—the
Whyos did have some form of covert communication, but I couldn’t find
anything at all about the specifics of it, so all the particulars are my invention.

Q: Your style seems to borrow from some of the traditions of the nineteenthcentury
novel, and yet in other ways Metropolis seems very modern. Which
writers have influenced you, particularly in the creation of Metropolis?

EG: I wanted to tap into the form of nineteenth-century novels by doing
certain things, like having short chapters with cliff-hanger endings, leading
the reader from one chapter to the next. It seemed to suit the material.
Some of what I do in the book, such as my use of a somewhat intrusive omniscient
narrator, is both quite old-fashioned and quite postmodern. You
see that kind of voice governing the earliest novels, from Don Quixote to
Tristram Shandy, and then again in much more recent and contemporaryseeming
fiction. I wanted the novel to straddle the past and the present, and
for some of its issues to speak to present-day issues. As I see it, the social injustices
of the nineteenth century are still with us, just in different forms
and particulars. By having my narrator be aware of modern genetics and
that sort of thing, or about social statistics such as the rate of abortions
among various demographic groups, I wanted to suggest how little the
world has changed. There are still a lot of diseases that afflict the poor
much more often than they afflict the middle and upper classes, for example.
I was trying to make a book that had some of the pleasures of escapism
that a good novel can give, but I didn’t want the book to exist only on that
level. And I didn’t want it to be a mere costume drama. I always appreciate
it when there’s some substance behind a story, and this was my way of trying
to provide that.

Q: Metropolis has very strong female characters, and some of the themes
are very forward thinking for the time period (the women’s medical college,
women running gangs). Who were the historical women that inspired
these themes?

EG: Susan Smith was real, as I said. She graduated from the first class of
the Medical College for Women. Her friend Sarah Blacksall is based
loosely on the director of that institution, Elizabeth Blackwell, who was a
generation older. I mention briefly a famous fence named Marm Mandelbaum,
who really existed, as well as a real-life abortionist and charlatan who
called herself Madame Restell (though she was not the least bit French).
The late nineteenth century was a time of visionary thinkers and social
change. Women were asserting themselves in any number of social contexts.
Margaret Sanger and a rival of hers named Mary Ware Dennett were
promoting women’s health care and contraception. There were colonies
that practiced free love, the communal raising of children, and open marriage.
The suffrage movement was well under way. The thing that struck me
over and over as I did my research was how advanced the society was in its
thinking, and how we haven’t come quite as far as we think we have, given
where society was then. Certainly not half far enough. Or maybe the point
is that progress itself is not inherently good.

Q: There’s a good deal of nineteenth-century medicine and science in
the book, including women’s health issues, a number of references to epidemic
diseases such as typhoid, a fairly graphic account of a heart attack,
and several characters who are doctors. What role do medicine and science
have in your story?

EG: I am fascinated with how the whole world works, from how a city is
built to how a body functions to how a person thinks and acts. I was interested
in placing the physiology of a society, or of a city, side by side with
the physiology of its component parts, great structures and individual fleshand-
blood human beings in their most bodily manifestations and in their
behavior. I see all sorts of interesting parallels between infrastructure, physiology
and the psyche. We are all alive, after all, and our physical bodies are
such a great part of our lives. I am surprised more writers don’t focus on this
part of the human experience. For me, it makes a death more understandable,
more manageable, to know about the medical causes behind it. It can
also reveal things we wouldn’t otherwise know about the narrative of a person’s
life.

Q: You include a lot of technical information about engineering, street
construction, and that sort of thing. Why was that important?

EG: Again, the whole world is a stage for a novelist. I see my task as one of
exploration, and that means looking in the closets and under the counters
and down the manhole covers, not just eavesdropping on conversations
that take place in living rooms and parlors. I am especially interested in terrain
that is commonly overlooked or avoided, especially for reasons of social
propriety. Very few writers go into the bathroom with their characters,
but often I find that important things transpire in the bathroom (or indeed
the sewers) and see no reason to look squeamishly away.

Q: What are you working on now?

EG: My new book is called The War Effort, and it is set in the period between
the end of World War II—V-J Day, in fact—and the Vietnam War.
The action all takes place in New York, once again, and to a great extent
the book is focused on the effects of war on the home front. The issue of a
good war versus a bad war comes up, as does the civil rights movement, and
some scientific and mathematical discoveries that were taking place in that
era. One of the main characters is an aspiring myrmecologist—an ant specialist.
Her mother is a depressed housewife who enters into a sordid love
affair. Under the same roof, her invalid husband lies in bed, suffering from
late-stage polio while his contemporaries go off to war and win honor and
die with glory. Another character is a Marine who comes back from Vietnam
badly damaged. Overall, the book centers on the ongoing relationships
of two families, one white and one black. I’m excited to delve into a
whole new set of social and emotional situations, and to get a chance to research
the more recent past.

Discussion Guides

1. The hero of Metropolis remains nameless for the first part of the book;
later, he tries on different names, which he then rejects, each in turn. Why
are names important, and why do you think Gaffney chose to complicate
her main character’s identity in this way?

2. Beatrice O’Gamhna does not initially appear to be the nicest heroine
when we first meet her; she is involved in pickpocketing and kidnapping.
How did you feel about her character, as you read? What is her appeal?

3. Although the main character is a man, the strongest characters in the
book are arguably the women: Mother Dolan, Beanie, Fiona. The issues of
women’s suffrage, violence against women and women in traditionally
male professions such as medicine also come up in the story. What sort of
point is Gaffney making? How much do you think society has changed in
its attitudes toward women since the nineteenth century?

4. Harris is dogged by bad luck in the book, but he also has his share of very
good luck, and there are any number of serendipitous or coincidental
events that occur. What role does luck play in the story? Are characters held
responsible for their actions?

5. Harris did not commit the particular crime of arson that he is suspected
of, but he is not purely innocent either. Is his sense of guilt appropriate? Is
he responsible for the things that happen after he is conscripted into the
gang? Does old unresolved guilt carry over into his present?

6. Most of the characters have complicated moral situations: they are good
people, and yet they are criminals; or they are criminals, but there is some
explanation for how they fell into a life of crime. In certain cases, characters
appear to be good, but they are in fact deeply corrupt. In what sort of
moral universe do the characters of Metropolis live? Are any of the characters
strictly good or evil?

7. There are two main villains, Dandy Johnny Dolan and Luther “the
Undertaker” Undertoe. Why do you think Gaffney wanted two villains in
the story, and how do they differ?

8. The Whyo gang has a complicated secret language and uses a profitsharing
scheme where funds are collected according to ability and distributed
according to need. They treat women considerably better than do
other gangs of criminals; at the same time, the gang is also extremely violent
and corrupt. What did you think of the Whyos, in the end, and why? Is
it possible to imagine a “good” gang?

9. Several of the characters in the story—Harris, Beatrice, John-Henry, and
Luther—lost their mothers early in their lives, and Johnny grew up without
a father. How do these formative events affect them, and how does each
character handle the difficulty of growing up with this loss?

10. There is a large cast of secondary characters in Metropolis, as well as
many side stories and digressions from the main narrative, on topics such
as street paving, sewer building, underwater caisson excavation, women’s
health and bacteriology. Why did Gaffney choose to include all these characters
and themes, and how do you think they contribute to the main story?

11. Do you think that the city of New York is more than just the setting for
the novel? Could the city itself be seen as a character in Metropolis?

12. Occasionally, the narrator’s voice intrudes on the story to comment on
the action. How does this change the experience of reading the story?
Would you say Metropolis feels like an old-fashioned novel, or are there aspects
of it that mark the book as a product of the twenty-first century?


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