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Crime and publishing, punk and Wall Street, quintessential Americana, and the formative site of the immigrant experience: The contradictions of New York’s first borough are all on display in these 12 vital novels of Manhattan.
The tip of the ’70s-New-York-nostalgia iceberg. Kushner’s heroine, an art school student with a penchant for motorcycles nicknamed Reno, checks all the boxes in her survey of East Village bohemians: pop artists, punk rockers, and urban revolutionaries. But it is her dedication to charting the cultural profile of left wing politics in the popular imagination, both in America and abroad, and the roots of corporate power that gives this stellar novel its titular fire.
A classic New York noir set against the backdrop of the magazine publishing industry, The Big Clock details a tense game of cat and mouse between the editor-in-chief of a Time-Life-type company and the employee he attempts to frame for murder. With an art world subplot and its lovably eccentric hero (played by Ray Milland and Kevin Costner in two movie adaptations), it is more the equal of its west coast crime story counterparts, but one that could only have taken place in Manhattan.
This crushing Yiddish novel—translated into English in 1972—details a love triangle between Holocaust survivors who meet again in postwar-Manhattan. With its unflinching depiction of the vagaries of love and an eye for how new world architecture intertwines with memories of old, vanished Europe, Enemies is a singularly American story of exile and enduring passion.
Manhattan is never named as such in Whitehead’s wonderfully odd first novel, but where else could a network of elevator inspectors wield such influence but in a city of skyscrapers? The title character is Lila Mae Watson, an African-American inspector of the “intuitionist” school caught in a conspiracy hatched by her rivals of the “empiricist” school. The novel manages to work a truly unique commentary on race in America into a gonzo storyline that feels like a consensual dream of the Manhattan skyline.
Nearly every book by Don DeLillo engages with Manhattan on some level, but Cosmopolis makes the list for being set in real time and space, as a 28-year-old billionaire travels across Midtown in his stretch limo, assailed by everything from protesters to paranoid assassins in his quest for a haircut. At 224 pages, it’s a slim novel by DeLillo’s standards but one that manages to pack in nearly everything worth saying about New York in the early 20th century.
A still-stunning masterpiece of the Lower East Side, Call It Sleep is an unsentimental immigrant tale of family secrets and life in early-20th-century slums. Hailed for its period dialect and the accuracy of its depiction of the Jewish diaspora, Henry Roth’s first (and his only, for 45 years) novel is a serious contender in any conversation about the Great American Novel.
Critics were shocked in 2013 when the reclusive author of V. and Gravity’s Rainbow published what may in fact be his best book, a pitch-perfect evocation of New York in the dot-com boom just before and immediately after 9/11. In Bleeding Edge, fraud examiner Maxine Tarnow is hired to investigate a suspicious computer security firm, but what follows is much more than a tech-thriller; it is a vividly observed period piece that works in a pop culture vernacular—everything from Friends to Zima—that is all the more impressive coming from a writer in his 70s.
Chabon’s breakthrough, Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel is undoubtedly the strongest novel to ever examine the Golden Age of comic books—featuring the partnership of Jewish refugee Josef Kavalier and his American cousin, Sammy Klayman, as they create a superhero sensation: the Escapist—but it’s also, line-for-line, one of the best-written books in English. Kavalier & Clay is the fullest of novels, working in everything from radio drama and Harry Houdini to the horrors of World War II and the rise of religious fundamentalism.
Set in Manhattan, where nearly everyone is from somewhere else, Netherland does something even more surprising than a variation on The Great Gatsby—a Dutch financial analyst witnesses to the rise and fall of a Trinidadian con man—it also manages to be the great cricket novel. The sport allows O’Neil to tell an essential postcolonial story that jumps from London to Staten Island, where Manhattan and the absent shadow of the Twin Towers reign supreme.
What Michael Chabon did for comics and O’Neil did for cricket, Oscar Hijuelos does for the mambo craze of the 1950s in Mambo Kings, which takes the form of a broken-down Cuban musician recalling his life in Manhattan just prior to Fidel Castro’s coup and the decline of both his career and his relationship with his brother Nestor. Hijuelos’s prose is often praised for its musicality, which befits a story driven by the cadence of New York’s Latino population.
In Jazz, Toni Morrison’s polyphonic novel of the Harlem Renaissance, jazz music provides the motifs of improvisation and pitch shifts that determine the novel’s structure. Like Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Morrison switches between perspectives in what is initially a murder mystery but which becomes one of her finest reckonings with African-American history, the legacy of the American South, and Manhattan itself.
Taylor’s 1986 Pulitzer Prize winner manages to be one the essential Manhattan novels while actually largely taking place in the South, where NYC book editor Philip Carver is called to disrupt his aging father’s scandalous marriage. Yet it is the way in which Taylor details Carver’s psychology, as a displaced Southerner clinging desperately to the civilizing force of Manhattan, that contributes to the literature of New York, both as a place and as a state of mind.