'Empire Rising' Author Explores 'High Noon' for City's Irish

'Empire Rising' Author Explores 'High Noon' for City's Irish

By Doug Chandler

Author Thomas Kelly feels such a keen attachment to Irish-American history that he often wishes he lived in the 1930s, a period he calls "high noon for the Irish in New York."

Kate Lacey
Thomas Kelly

Like other groups of ethnic Americans, the Irish have prospered since World War II, says Kelly, 43, the author of three novels touching on the Irish-American experience. Many, if not most, of them, he notes, are middle-class and living in the suburbs.

But Kelly, a New York native who grew up surrounded by aunts, uncles and other relatives with rich Irish accents, believes that success can come with a price, as he feels it has for the Irish.

"By becoming really, fully American," he said in a recent phone interview, the Irish "lost a bit of what shaped them, the experiences their forbears had, and they lost their grip on urban America. People don't think of the Irish as these urban people, but I think they invented the urban style and urban attitudes."

That belief has informed Kelly's desire to inhabit an earlier time, when hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants just off the boat mingled in the nation's cities with the descendants of those who arrived years earlier. It was a period, too, when the presence of Irish-Americans loomed large in city halls and governor's mansions throughout the country.

With his latest book, "Empire Rising" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005, 400pp.), Kelly has explored that era, which saw, among things, the construction of the Empire State Building, the novel's focus.

"My first two books were set very much during the afternoon, if not the twilight, of the Irish-American experience in New York," Kelly said, referring to "Payback" and "The Rackets," novels that both take place in the 1970s and '80s. With "Empire Rising," he added, "It was kind of fun to go back to 1930."

As he wrote the novel, Kelly, a former construction worker himself, thought vividly of what life must have been like for the men involved in building the structure, a feat of architecture that took only a year and 45 days to rise, still a record for a skyscraper of such height. Many of the workers were Irish-Americans, one factor that drew Kelly to the subject.

He thought, too, about the women in their lives, as well as the historical figures who appear in his novel — those like Mayor Jimmy Walker; Franklin Roosevelt, New York's governor at the time; and cultural icons like Lewis Hine, the photographer, and Babe Ruth. And he thought, finally, about his own family.

Fulbright American Studies Institute
Photo by Lewis Hine, titled "Icarus atop the Empire State Building," shows a (posed) worker high above Manhattan during the construction of the Empire State Building.

The novel, his most ambitious to date and one that has earned high praise from reviewers, includes two characters based on relatives who lived during that era. One is the book's main character, Michael Briody, who shares the same name as a great-uncle of Kelly's who arrived in the United States in the 1920s.

The real Michael Briody "met a certain fate in the Bronx that was never clearly explained (to the family)," Kelly said. "So I decided to go ahead and write a book to explain it to myself."

The other character, Grace Masterson, is an artist who, after migrating to these shores, lived on a houseboat in the East River. Some of her "back story" is based on one of the author's great-aunts, a woman of tremendous spirit and independence who lived on a houseboat in Brooklyn, said the author, a resident of New York's Upper West Side.

Like other immigrants, Kelly's Irish-born relatives left behind everything they knew "to come to the New World and get a fresh start. It's certainly not an original story," he said, "but it's my unique, family version of the story, and I wanted to write about that."

"You're an American first, and all this other stuff is flavor."

Apart from his relatives, Kelly said, the inspiration for writing "Empire Rising" came from his fascination with the Empire State Building itself, a structure he called "the iconic building" of this country, if not the world. "There are certainly bigger buildings," Kelly said, "but I don't think anything can quite combine the uniqueness, the symbolic nature and the romance of it."

Kelly, who grew up in the Bronx and in New Milford, N.J., a suburb close to New York, said he thought of becoming a writer even as a teenager. He was certainly an avid reader, he recalled, gobbling up books by the likes of Henry Roth, Pietro di Donato and James T. Farrell, whose fiction helped record the immigrant experience.

How New York Differed

Irish immigrants arriving in New York seven or eight decades ago experienced this country in a much different way than those who arrived in other cities.

So believes Thomas Kelly, the author of three novels involving aspects of the Irish-American experience.

Kelly, a native of New York, said Irish immigrants in the 1920s and '30s, the "heyday" for Irish-Americans, thrived in New York as they could in no other place.

He cited two reasons for his belief: the town's nature as a wide-open city built on commerce, as opposed to, say, faith or religion, and the sheer number of immigrants who came through its portals.

The circumstances in other cities simply weren't the same, said Kelly, whose most recent novel, "Empire Rising," concerns the rise of the Empire State Building. The structure, built in a record one year and 45 days, involved the labor of thousands of Irish-Americans.

Irish immigrants to Boston, for example, found a city imbued with religion — a place where so much boiled down to the conflict between the Boston Irish and the Boston Brahmins, Kelly said. Chicago, meanwhile, never drew the Irish in the same concentration as they arrived in New York.

Indeed, as Kelly sees it, Irish-Americans "came to dominate New York in a way that they never quite dominated any other city" — or, certainly, any city that exerted the same influence over national life as New York did. — DC

But Kelly's life took several detours before he turned to writing.

Feeling that college just wasn't in the cards for him, Kelly gravitated toward construction work as a 15-year-old and stayed in the field until he was 25. He often cut class to work in the field, barely completing high school, and spent his last four years in construction as a sandhog — "the guys," he said, "who build all the tunnels."

It was only after he turned 20, after his father's death, that Kelly enrolled in a junior college, a decision motivated partly by guilt and partly by the desire for a better job.

"I felt bad because all he ever said was, 'Don't be like me; get an education,' and, of course, we ignored him," Kelly said. The "we" refers to the author and his two brothers. Their father, he added, worked in the railroad freight yards of the South Bronx.

Kelly eventually attended Fordham University, where he studied political economy, and received a master's degree from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in 1988. Already involved in union politics, he returned to New York and worked as the director of advance for Mayor David Dinkins' re-election campaign.

By the time he graduated from Fordham, Kelly, then 26, had also begun his career as an author, jumping right into his first novel, "Payback." He did so without as much as taking a writing class beforehand or composing a short story.

"I just kept at it and kept at it and kept at it," Kelly said — the kind of gritty, disciplined, no-holds-barred approach that the author seems to have followed throughout his life.

"Payback" involves the construction trade and "the Irish mob," as well as the Mafia and the FBI, according to its book jacket. But the heart of the novel rests on three brothers, one of whom is a sandhog planning to enter law school.

Sounds like it could be at least partly autobiographical. And so, too, does "The Rackets," Kelly's second novel, in which a former "roughneck" construction worker, now Ivy-educated, works as an advance man for the mayor of New York.

Kelly agreed that much of the action is autobiographical — "the idea of someone involved in unions and politics" — but "all the other stuff," including his characters' inner lives, is fictional.

"Every now and then, there'll be some sort of composite [in his books]," said Kelly, who, with his sturdy build and balding pate, could still pass as the sandhog he once was. But none of his novels have included "a strict representation or even an interpretation" of anyone he knows.

"I come up with character, and everything flows out of that."

Kelly said his Irish background influenced his choice of post-college careers — first politics and then writing — in the sense that Irish-Americans have long been associated with both fields. He also cited the tradition of storytelling among the Irish as another great influence.

But Kelly views his heritage through the larger prism of being American. "You're an American first," he said, "and all this other stuff is flavor." Similarly, the author regards himself as an American writer, first and foremost, and only then as an Irish-American author. "The stories I tell aren't unique to the Irish," he said. American Jews have had a similar experience, as have Italian, Polish and Haitian immigrants.

Having played a role in politics himself, Kelly still has strong views about the subject. He considers himself liberal, but pragmatic, and the one figure he most admires, past or present, is Martin Luther King Jr.

But Kelly, referring to politics as "very much part of my past," said he prefers to discuss writing and storytelling, the two pillars of his new trade.

Various critics have described Kelly's writing as urban, dynamic, intensely heartfelt and as "tart as the street talk of the city." Joe Klein, reviewing "Empire Rising" in The New York Times Book Review, wrote of "a compelling muscularity to his work," with plots that "barrel along" and a dialogue that rings of authenticity.

For his part, Kelly, who reports occasionally for Esquire magazine, said he tries to write vividly. "I try to move the characters and narrative along, so maybe that's what (Klein) was getting at."

The Empire State Building, according to Thomas Kelly, "the iconic building" of this country, if not the world.

With the Empire State Building as its backdrop and with characters so real and vivid, "Empire Rising" appears to be a novel that would work well on screen, and some well-known figures in the film industry have approached Kelly about optioning the book.

But Kelly, who declined to name any of those who have approached him, makes no conscious effort to write cinematically. "I just start with character," he said, his approach with all three novels. In the case of "Empire Rising," I didn't really know where the characters were going to end up. I come up with character, and everything flows out of that."

Kelly today is working on a new book — a novel about the rise and fall of post-World War II New York — although progress is slow, he said, and "it takes me a while to get up to speed. ... It's somehow going to involve the detective bureau, but I'm staring at a blank page as we speak."

Someday, Kelly said, he might try to write "the great Irish-Jewish New York novel," reflecting what the author believes has been a cordial relationship between the two groups that has received little, if any, attention. "No one's really gotten into that," he added. WGT

Doug Chandler, a New York-based journalist, has contributed to daily and weekly newspapers in the city and to several Jewish papers. His most recent article for TheWildGeese.com, "Director Fetes Two Cultures in 'Shalom Ireland,'" looked at a documentary about Ireland's Jewish community.

This feature was edited by Gerry Regan and produced by Joe Gannon

Copyright © 2012 GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@garmedia.com

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Tags: 1930s, Book, Irish-American, Kelly, Review, Thomas


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