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What I've Been Reading
Book discussions with a focus on the writer's craft

Ghosts of New York


Ghosts of New York by Jim Lewis is an unusual novel because it lacks a central character and a plot.  Some might argue that New York City is the protagonist, but what engaged me more consistently were the characters.  The reader is introduced to many, most of them only for a short while, while others make return appearances.  What they share, across chapters, is location, and while most of these lives take place in what feels like contemporary times, some do not.  So, what gives Ghosts of New York cohesion?  Why is it appropriate to call it a novel?  And what is it, in this remarkable book, that satisfied my need for story?
 Jim Lewis is in love with people, their variety and unpredictability, and his sentences are precise; they probe and reveal like a surgeon opening that part of the body that hurts. I became intimate with each character's defining qualities.  Over and over, his insights into behavior felt true.   Never self-conscious or manufactured for effect, they were expressed in ordinary diction that allowed me to view the character in a private and endearing fashion.  Here are some examples:
"There was a slender silver chain around her neck, and dangling from it there was a cross, though just the very top was visible.  She was bare where it hung. He started to think of her lace and elastic, but he stopped himself, wondering how he had come to be so coarse—that wasn't like him at all—and wondering, too, if she could tell, if she could see it in his eyes, as she must have seen it in men's eyes all her life. He should be better than that: he wanted to listen to her, but the mind of a man in the first stages of love's grief can hear little more than want, want, want, like the pulling sound of oars in the water" (92).  This is Benny meeting a woman named Jillian.  Later: "His bed, now with double the weight on it, had ridden low on the night, like a boat in shallow water.  The smell of her skin was perfumed and powdery, with just the faintest edge of agreeable rankness; the smell of her breath was like a wet animal" (97). What appeals to me is the unsentimental tracking of a man desiring a woman, revealing the intimate things that snag his attention.  It is eavesdropping at its very best.
The following is from the longest chapter in the novel, and the only chapter narrated in the first person.  The narrator is named Mickey and he has just met a man named Johnny who comes from a tangled family history overseas.  Johnny is the speaker. "Everything that's best about this country is represented in its language.  Do you know what my favorite word is? I waited while he basked in anticipation, a little too long: Johnny always did have a bad sense of timing.—Sure, he said at last.  I love this word, he said.  Sure" (117).  At this point, the reader knows that Johnny is a formal person, a survivor of difficult times, more worldly and experienced than Mickey, and his pleasure with such a casual word as "sure" reveals his hunger for the easy life Mickey has in New York.  Mickey and Johnny are both students at Columbia and they frequent a "pitch-dark bar on Broadway and 125h street, underneath the elevated subway tracks….We called it Rusty's because that was the owner's name; he was a solid and slow man, Harlem born and bred, who poured shots with the parsimony of an elderly woman fishing in her change purse.  Still, they only cost a dollar a throw, and we got drunk by the thimbleful, night after night."  This is what I mean by precision: that elderly woman fishing in her change purse is not only vivid but, when held up against a Harlem man standing behind the counter in the dark bar he owns, it's also absurd, but that visual disorder is exactly what gives the description the specificity the reader needs to be able to feel his presence.
It occurs to me that all of the examples I've chosen are from the point of view of male characters, and though the novel is full of women, I believe there is only one, a photographer who roams the city at night taking pictures, who is also a recurrent point of view character.  Another who reappears, yet is never a point of view character, is Bridget, a woman Johnny and Mickey meet at Rusty's one night.  Bridget comes into Mickey's life in a casual way, but then settles in for the long term.  "There was a density to her, a gravity.  She always seemed to be standing with her back to a corner, even when she wasn't, because the corner was her territory."  Again, the mixture of something slightly off-kilter, the idea that someone gravitates to corners, combined with more practical words like gravity and density, creates a potent and visceral feeling about this woman.  Later in the novel, we will hear Bridget in orgasm, and it is truly a corner woman ripping out of a dark place and taking her rightful position in the world spectacularly. This orgasm has no equal in all of literature, I guarantee it.
It seems counterintuitive that a novel with so many unconnected moving parts, where the only stable piece is the setting, could cast such a spell, but these sentences, like the ones above that reveal characters in relationship to one another, have a quality of witness that stretches beyond the barriers of separate bodies.  Lewis' characters actively engage in the process of making connections with one another, trying to pass through the doorway into the other's life.  This is exciting to be a part of, and it feels especially nutritious now, in this time when so much human interaction happens in the flat space of screens.  But readers are always hungry for this, it's why we go to novels.  And in Jim Lewis's deeply felt Ghosts of New York, we follow the author's zig zag path from building to street to alleyway to park, going from one pocket of human activity to another, looking for the characters we've already met and want to be with again.
Returning to the questions I posed in the first paragraph, my answer is that the cohesive force that holds these stories together is the momentum created by chaos and disorder. That's what these lives mean within the container of New York.  Unlike other novels, the narrative doesn't impose meaning or order.  That's impossible here because the view is wider, the narrator more democratic, and the memorable opening and closing pages hint at something eternal.
Lewis, Jim.  Ghosts of New York.  Morgantown: West Virginia University Press. 2021.