New Novel Brings Coney Island to Life

Park Slope writer Andrew Lewis Conn. Photo by Nicholas Maloof
Park Slope writer Andrew Lewis Conn. Photo by Nicholas Maloof

Park Slope writer Andrew Lewis Conn burst onto the literary scene in 2003 with his avant-garde novel “P.,” described in the New York Times Book Review as “rambunctious, exhilarating, surreal, funny and moving” while Kirkus anointed Conn “a writer to watch.” On June 10, Conn returns with his long-awaited new novel, bringing his remarkable talents to bear in “O, AFRICA!” (Hogarth), a sweeping historical adventure comparable in its exuberance and scope to “Ragtime” and “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” with brotherhood and forbidden love playing out against the backdrop of the birth of the movies.

A Brooklyn native, Conn grew up frequenting Coney Island — the neighborhood that inspired the opening set piece of his book. “I long wanted to write about Coney Island, and both the amusement park’s historic position in American popular culture and how the movie industry finds its roots in a kind of carny/vaudeville tradition really made it the perfect setting for the novel’s opening,” says Conn. Throughout the novel, Conn’s vivid descriptions bring to life Coney Island and other Brooklyn neighborhoods.

An energetic text, “O, AFRICA!” digs deep into the separate cultures of Jews, gays, and African Americans in the early twentieth century and how they intersect yet remain outside the mainstream. Micah and Izzy Grand, the twin sons of Jewish immigrants, are making a name for themselves in the slapstick silent film world of 1920s New York. Red-haired, bombastic Micah is the director and dark, quiet Izzy works his magic behind the camera lens. But motion pictures are changing with the times and the Grands’ enterprise is waning as the talkies threaten to eat up business. Micah’s penchant for gambling and a clandestine interracial affair with his costume girl, Rose, are leading him down a dark road, one populated by Harlem gangsters and ominous late-night visits with jazz club thugs. Izzy, a “confirmed bachelor,” harbors his own secrets and struggles to keep his brother’s recklessness from destroying their livelihood.

Things come to a head when Micah finds himself hopelessly beholden to juke joint owner Mr. Waldo and his enforcer Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson. To pay off his debt and to appease the studio heads breathing down his neck for something new and profitable, Micah enlists Izzy for an adventure: the first studio film made in Africa. The pair set sail to the Dark Continent along with a ragtag band of actors and crew members and a secret script the gangsters have pressed on Micah—an amateur but explosive screenplay about the slave trade and race relations in America.

Tensions boil over as the brothers arrive in Malwiki, meeting the native tribesmen and spreading chaos with the introduction of their unfamiliar cameras and celluloid reels. As Izzy finds love and acceptance for the first time in his life and Micah grapples with his feelings for Rose, violence and misunderstanding threaten the entire expedition. “O, AFRICA!” incorporates weighty issues of racial prejudice, anti-Semitism, and closeted sexuality as it tells the timeless story of two brothers, as old as Isaac and Esau, struggling with their sense of self and morality.

Image courtesy of Random House/Crown Publishing
Image courtesy of Random House/Crown Publishing

As a novel about the eternal allure of the movies, “O, AFRICA!” is fittingly cinematic. From the Coney Island boardwalk to the sultry, smoky Harlem nightclubs, the untamed African bush, and the glittering ballrooms of Los Angeles, the Grands are on an adventure to rival anything they could capture on screen. Conn’s attention to detail and astounding knack for re-creating the era make for a captivating and stylish tour de force. As a former film critic, Conn infuses his story with an incredible wealth of knowledge and stunning historical accuracy, but “O, AFRICA!” is no “Old Timey” nostalgia trip. The novel doesn’t read like a period piece, rather it transports the reader directly into the roaring twenties with Conn’s phenomenal cast as they grapple with the deepest questions of identity and the meaning of the American character.

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Andrew Lewis Conn has written essays, short fiction, and reviews for The BelieverFilm Comment, the Village VoiceTime Out New York, and the Indiana Review, among others, and has attended writers residencies at Yaddo and Ledig House in Hudson, New York. Conn’s previous novel, “P,” was chosen as a best book of the summer of 2003 by SalonTime Out New York, the Oregonian, and Nerve; one of the best books of the year by the Village Voice and the Austin Chronicle; and long-listed as “one of the best books of the millennium (so far!)” by The Millions.

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