When I started writing here for Gothamist, a good friend immediately plucked Patrick McGrath’s Ghost Town off her shelf and handed it to me. I was a little skeptical. Although I love Bloomsbury’s Writer in the City series, of which McGrath’s book is the latest installment, I was really in the mood to read some good, juicy fiction. I wasn’t in the mood for nonfiction travel writing, no matter how compelling it may be (and it is compelling – Ruy Castro’s Rio de Janeiro: Carnival Under Fire is a must-read for that city). Luckily for me, McGrath’s book is really three short stories woven together around the stage of New York, and its rich history of, in this case, devastation.
I knew, the minute the back cover said “spanning three centuries” that the last story would be set in 2001. So I started the book like many of you would – a little apprehensive about the prospect of September 11th being recounted in fiction. The book starts 225 years before that, though, in the year 1776. McGrath writes from the perspective of a young boy who loses his patriot mother to the “gibbet”, or the gallows, for her efforts to defeat the British who occupy the island of Manhattan. Like any New Yorker, and like McGrath well knew we would, I read in fascination at his description of streets I know so well, in such a different setting. Imagine, the village of Brooklyn! How he talks about the wilds of Harlem Heights! McGrath knows his audience. Unlike the other books in the series, which feel more geared towards visitors – albeit culturally high-minded ones – Ghost Town feels like it’s written for New Yorkers themselves, to visit our collective past. And McGrath, a master of psychological thrillers and the genre of New Gothic, knows just how to tantalize us with our own streets.
But it’s not just the nostalgia of a familiar city in its salad days that drew me in to the short book. Throughout the first tale of terrifying occupation, and the second more intimate portrait of a family in the 1850’s and their betrayal and insanity, McGrath makes the old-fashioned language feel appropriate, even injects it with his own curious brand of modernity. Some of his own background comes through his writing – McGrath grew up on the grounds of Broadmoor, one of the biggest mental hospitals in England, where his father was a superintendent, and spent plenty of time working in psychiatric wards himself, where he culled material for his earlier books like Asylum and <Spider. Often, and seemingly reflexively, McGrath’s characters in the first two stories refer to their own behaviors in psychological terms. Even his narrators, who are both removed by years from the events they talk about, have complex personalities, whose flaws and mistakes are a part of the story they’re recounting. The writing is both deliciously old-fashioned and strikingly modern. This is what they call the New Gothic, and it somehow suits New York just fine. A little gruesome, a little self-aware.
It’s the third story in the piece that is the most different, and the most affecting. Seemingly completely at odds with the grisly direct violence of the first two (no eyes gouged out, no gibbets), it’s certainly not lacking in horror. It deals with, of course, the fall of the World Trade Center towers, and the three characters around whom the story revolve are a psychiatrist, her struggling patient Danny, and the prostitute he falls in love with right after the attacks. The language is so much more modern and clinical, it’s almost hard to see how similarly dark and violent the story is. But it is. McGrath captures well how shell-shocked the city’s denizens were, and he focuses his morbid eye on the repercussions, the reverberations of the falling towers, onto these three people and their own little drama, but he makes it clear that the reverberations sounded through everyone.
The 2001 one story is meant to feel like the oddity, I think, so that we can stop and think about its relationship to the more obvious earlier tales about betrayal and insanity and terror. It’s very subtle, and very well executed. As the first story starts out, talking about a cholera outbreak, “I have been in the town, a disquieting experience, for New York has become a place not so much of death as of the terror of death.” Really, though, he’s talking about all the New Yorks he takes us to. And it would have been nice, wouldn’t it have been, if McGrath had then walked his readers to a place of redemption, where everyone perseveres throughout the strife. He didn't. He allows all three stories to end with only some of the pieces picked up after the storm.
And I'm glad he didn’t. I think, again, he knew that his readers, New Yorkers, already knew about the perseverance part.