Pulitzer Grit: Jennifer Egan captures vivid WWII Brooklyn

Prize-Winning Novelist Sets a Hot Page-Turner In Adopted Home Boro

Cover art courtesy of Scribner for Simon & Schuster
Cover art courtesy of Scribner for Simon & Schuster

In a recent online interview for BrooklynEagle.com, Pulitzer Prize-winner Jennifer Egan told the Eagle that she had come to Brooklyn from her native Chicago via San Francisco, then Philadelphia and a stint in Manhattan.

“We moved to Fort Greene in 2000,” she said. “A few things led us to move: My husband was already working in the neighborhood, so we were familiar with its beauty … we were expecting a baby. It was natural to look for more space in Brooklyn.”

Her latest novel called for research on Brooklyn during the World War II era, particularly at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, just blocks from her Fort Greene home.

Having won a Pulitzer for “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” Egan has been kept busy — and traveling — with speaking engagements by her publisher, Scribner, for the hugely anticipated new novel “Manhattan Beach.”

It has been called a haunting and propulsive story that intertwines the lives of Anna Kerrigan, a Brooklyn Navy Yard diver; her father Eddie Kerrigan, a longshoreman turned small-time gangster; and Dexter Styles, Eddie’s inscrutable and connected boss. The novel has already garnered four-starred trade reviews.

In the opening pages of the novel, Anna is a child, accompanying her father on a mysterious work-related assignation, which takes them to a grand house in Brooklyn’s Manhattan Beach. There, Anna is mesmerized by the private beach and by the sea — she feels “an electric mix of attraction and dread.” She also meets her father’s new boss, Styles. One of the chief pleasures of this novel is that as the narrative unspools, readers, along with Anna, gain an understanding of the complex significance of Eddie and Anna’s day in Manhattan Beach.

Anna grows from a precocious child to a fearless, wildly independent woman. After Eddie mysteriously disappears, it is up to Anna to take care of her mother and her disabled little sister. It’s World War II, and Anna is one of the hundreds of women who work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, replacing the men who have gone to war. She is drawn to the treacherous world of divers, who repair the ships underwater, preparing them for war. But despite the high excitement of her job — and the novelty of enjoying Manhattan nightlife for the first time — she is haunted by her missing father. Her attempts to find him are perhaps even more dangerous than diving, and they lead her back to the enigmatic and reckless Styles.

Egan’s admiration of the great 19th-century novelists is reflected in these pages, as is her love of a secret (and rapidly disappearing) slice of New York City. “Manhattan Beach” is also a riveting page-turner featuring showgirls, gangsters, killers, union men, shipwrecks, graft and teeming and diverse early 20th-century Brooklyn. Egan did voluminous research (on deep sea diving, shipbuilding, tides and the Brooklyn Navy Yard) for this novel, but “Manhattan Beach” wears its research lightly. It also contains all the hallmarks of an Egan novel: stellar writing, shifting and slippery identities, characters longing for escape, and an intrepid, unforgettable female protagonist.

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