A Publishing Double Feature by Two Brooklyn Literary StarsJennifer Egan does a deep dive into the Navy Yard in a historical novel, while Ron Chernow reveals the unsung virtues of Ulysses S. Grant
The last time two of Brooklyn’s most celebrated authors published books, in 2010, they both won Pulitzer Prizes. Jennifer Egan triumphed in the fiction category for the unconventionally told journey into the music world, A Visit from the Goon Squad. Ron Chernow took home the biography prize for Washington: A Life, a sweeping portrait of the first President. Besides being prizewinners, both books were bestsellers. This month, as if flying in formation, the two authors are back with their much-anticipated follow-ups, to be published a week apart. The authors will be appearing in the city at promotional events as they kick off their book tours (details below).
First up is Egan. Manhattan Beach, to be published tomorrow, is the author’s deep dive into a more traditional form than her earlier work. The historical novel will be of particular interest to Brooklynites, since much of the story takes place in the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II, when the shipbuilding complex was humming at its peak. The novel follows the exploits of a young woman, Anna Kerrigan, who becomes the first female diver to work in the Navy Yard, donning an elaborate suit to repair ships, as well as navigating a waterfront world of sailors, gangsters and dockworkers.
Egan spent years researching the book, learning the arcane workings of the shipyard and the Merchant Marine as well as reading the archived letters of 1940s-era Brooklynites. She discovered that the Navy Yard was “like a secret city,” she said in June at a panel discussion at the Brooklyn Historical Society. “I kept having the thrilling sense that I was getting on board a ship,” she said.
Writing the book in a purely historical vein, however, proved to be surprisingly difficult. “I presumed there would be a tricky connection to the present that might take the form of leaps into it, or winks … some sort of bargain between narrator and reader that was more complicated than We Are Now in the Past,” Eagan said in a conversation with author George Saunders, published in the New York Times in 2015. “But the book has resisted that kind of narrative interference absolutely. It was a nonstarter every time I tried it. Only a kind of straightforward, immersive narration seemed to work. I thought, But that’s not what I do anymore! I’ve always been willing to try anything, and it turns out the book had very different ideas about how it needed to be written than I was expecting.”
The result of her effort is “immensely satisfying,” declared reviewer Dwight Garner in the Times. “It’s a dreadnought of a World War II-era historical novel, bristling with armaments yet intimate in tone. It’s an old-fashioned page-turner, tweaked by this witty and sophisticated writer so that you sometimes feel she has retrofitted sleek new engines inside a craft owned for too long by James Jones and Herman Wouk.”
For Chernow, the author of six previous books, history is familiar terrain. His most renowned work, of course, is Alexander Hamilton, not just for being the definitive biography of the founding father, but for what happened to it next: composer and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda took the book on summer vacation and turned it into the biggest Broadway hit of our time. Chernow’s friends in theater couldn’t believe his luck, he told the Wall Street Journal recently. “They said, ‘This isn’t really fair! You’re involved in one show in your life, and it’s ‘Hamilton’!” he says. “Clearly I had not paid my dues.”
With his new book, however, a biography of general and President Ulysses S. Grant, Chernow had his work cut out for him in finding the real person behind the popular caricature of Grant as a battlefield butcher, a drunk, an incompetent President, and a bad businessman. In Grant, to be published Oct. 10, Chernow discovers a character with underappreciated heroic qualities, including President Grant’s determination to seek justice for African Americans in the aftermath of the Civil War. Grant “strenuously disputes the conventional view,” writes Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker. What’s more, the 1,074-page book is a good read, “fluid and intelligent,” says the reviewer. Chernow “is extraordinarily good on what could be called, unpejoratively, the Higher Gossip of History–he can uncannily detect the actual meaning beneath social interactions.”
Chernow and Egan will be appearing at local readings, book signings and discussions to promote their books. Egan will be at three events this week: Weds., Oct. 4, at 7 p.m. at the Barnes & Noble on Union Square in Manhattan; on Thurs., Oct. 5, at 6:30 p.m. at a Greenlight Books event at the Brooklyn Navy Yard; and on a panel with Saunders and Colson Whitehead at the New Yorker Festival on Sat., Oct. 7, at 10 a.m. at the Land Rover Theatre in Manhattan. Chernow will appear on Oct. 10 at 7 p.m. at the Barnes & Noble store at 150 E. 86th St. in Manhattan and on Nov. 6 at 6 p.m. at New York University’s Kimmel Center for University Life. (Chernow will also take part in events at the New-York Historical Society and the 92nd Street Y, but those are sold out.)