One of the joys of my early childhood was going with my family to the beaches of New York City, particularly Rockaway and Jacob Riis. Getting there was at least half the fun. We’d go over the George Washington Bridge, then head south on the West Side Highway. It was then that the three of us kids in the back of the car would look toward the piers of the West Side to see which of the great liners – the Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mary or the United States – was in port. In lower Manhattan, the West Side Highway was an elevated highway jigsawing its way past office buildings and steamship buildings to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel.
With that happy memory in mind, I recently read The Big Crowd, a novel by Kevin Baker. In the larger picture of the life of Charlie O’Kane in his later years as Mayor of New York and his exile in Mexico City after he leaves electoral office, The Big Crowd presents both a pretty accurate picture of the Big Apple before it became overripe, but a less certain view of the last fully Irish-American mayor of New York City (Robert Wagner had part-German ancestry.).
The end of industrial New York City was at hand. Take shipping. By the mid-1950s, Malcolm MacLean was at Port Newark in New Jersey unveiling a new way to transport goods from foreign ports to inland destinations – containerization. Goods were shipped in containers to U.S. ports, then lifted by giant cranes onto rail cars or domestic vessels for transporting all across North America. Gone was the grunt work of unloading breakbulk cargo by longshoremen and the political power of the unions that controlled the waterfront; an International Longshoremen’s Association official said of the first container ship he saw, “I’d like to sink that son-of-a-bitch.”
The period also marked the height of influence of Robert Moses and the decline of the New York City neighborhood. in the novel, Tom O’Kane, Charlie’s younger brother, castigates his sibling when Charlie as Mayor appoints Robert Moses as city construction coordinator. Charlie responds,” Somebody’s got to be in charge, and who knows this better than Robert Moses? He knows how to build.”
“Maybe once,” Tom replies. “Now I think he just likes to tear down. Look at what he’s doing out at Coney Island. Wiping out a whole neighborhood, and half the boardwalk with it. And the Bronx-”
But as Moses was building exit lanes on expressways leading from Gotham to the Levittowns of the suburbs, Eisenhower was doing him one better. The interstate system of highways pointed people and businesses west and south. If you could escape the city and live on Long Island, you could travel just a bit further on a high-speed road and go to North Carolina. If jobs were “going, going, gone” to warmer climes, so were baseballs. In 1957, New York had three major league teams; a year later, just one.
In the O’Kane era, the business of New York was shifting from manufacturing to finance. No one anticipated this better than another of Baker’s characters, Cardinal Spellman, a not-infrequent visitor to Wall Street and, along with Moses, one of the shadow characters in this novel.
But a cast of big-name characters doesn’t always sell out the show. The Big Crowd travels at a herky-jerky, back-and-forth pace from New York in the 30s, 40s, and 50s to Mexico after O’Kane leaves New York under clouded circumstances. It chronicles the Big Crowd – described by Charlie’s girlfriend Slim as “a combination of café society and Tammany Hall” – and leaves this reader confused. Its moments of insight and brilliance, particularly in the portrait of the elder O’Kane in exile, are dulled by the sidetracks the novel takes.
A final word of caution: The two O’Kane brothers are both lawyers. One, Charlie, is almost two decades older than the other. They hail from Bohola in County Mayo, Charlie leaves the mayor’s office and is appointed Ambassador to Mexico by President Truman. Does this “plot” sound familiar? You’ve heard this before?
I could live with this intrusion into history, if not for one of Baker’s subplots – Tom’s affair with Charlie’s girlfriend, Slim. I think too highly of Paul O’Dwyer, whom Tom is patterned after, to even contemplate this relationship happening without some proof. I even feel cheap when I google the subject for corroboration.
In his New York Times review, Scott Turow counts this as one of the “dramatic liberties” Baker takes in The Big Crowd. I remain less generous in my appraisal of this inclusion. JC