Monday, June 13, 2011

Helping hand/Urban jungle

I was reading Kathryn Stockett's The Help in the living room the other day, and my roommate said it was very "book club 2009" of me. And she's totally right! The Help is not normally the type of book I would pick up (I don't read a lot of fiction anymore, and I tend to avoid anything 1) with a woman on the cover, especially if she's a) shown only from the neck down b) turned away c) in the process of getting dressed/undressed or 2) has the word a) wife b) daughter c) sister anywhere in the title OR 3) is going to be mostly about relationships. These rules also apply to movies).

But! I had just finished TJ English's The Savage City, and I realized that The Savage City and The Help are bizarre counterpoints to each other. The Help is set in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963 (Medgar Evers is murdered during the year the book takes place, but Martin Luther King is still alive). The Savage City is the chronicle of New York City in the early 1960s, and the cataclysmic event is the "Career Girl Murders," the murder of two young white women that ignited a decade of volcanic race relations and led to the shakeup of the corrupt New York City police department, a series of race riots, and forever changed the face of the city.

The Help alternates chapters from the viewpoint of Aibileen, a maid and domestic who works for a high-strung, neurotic woman, Minny, a sharp-tongued woman who works for...well, another high-strung, neurotic woman, and Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, an aspiring journalist languishing on her parents' cotton plantation, who decides to interview the town's maids and collect their stories for a book she's hoping will be her ticket into the publishing world in NYC.

The chapters told from Aibileen's viewpoint are far and away the best. Her genuine affection for the children she raises, in particular her boss's sad toddler, Mae Mobley, are heart-wrenching, as is her grief after the death of her only child. Minny and her employer, white-trash-married-well Celia Foote's relationship, is often hilarious. The two women form a perfect counterpoint for each other. The chapters told from Skeeter's viewpoint are less successful, and her interest in the women's stories doesn't seem to rise above self-serving, even when it comes to finding out the reason behind her beloved maid Clementine's disappearance.

Although Kathryn Stockett got a lot of praise for addressing the "hidden world" of maids and their relationships with their white employers in the 1960s South, it feels like she pulls her punches. The maids are taking a very real, very big risk in sharing their stories, and while they're cognizant of the price they may pay, violence is held at arm's length in the story. There's a bizarre interlude with a violent Peeping Tom at Celia Foote's remote home, but the episode is dropped into the story and then abandoned, which stretches credibility.

The Savage City, on the other hand, lives up to its name, from its opening line describing New York as a city "saturated with blood." Early 1960s New York is undergoing a wrenching transition. In the introduction, English traces the city's profound and rapid demographic shift to the influx of migrants from the South, beginning in the mid-1940s and spurred by the introduction of the mechanical cotton harvester; and the growing waves of immigrants from Puerto Rico. Racial tensions are already at a boiling point in 1963, when a series of events rocked the city, exposed the rampant corruption of the NYPD, and set the government of New York and the police department against each other in a fight for control of NYC.

The Savage City begins in August 1963, on the day of MLK's march on Washington. The New York police department received a report of a double homicide, not unusual in a city with over 500 murders that year and a steadily rising crime rate. Two young women, Emily Hoffert and Janice Wylie, were found murdered in their apartment on East Eighty-Eighth by their roommate. The details of the murder made it even more sensational, as the did the women's relatively safe neighborhood and the complete absence of any witnesses. Facing a storm of media coverage and pressure to find the killer, detectives arrested George Whitmore, a ninetteen-year-old who had recently come to NYC from Wildwood, New Jersey. Whitmore hadn't even arrived in NYC when Wylie and Hoffert were killed, but the NYPD easily pressured him into signing a confession and gleefully alerted the press that they'd found the killer. Whitmore was also charged with assaulting a woman shortly before the murder, who identifed Whitmore as her attacker.

What follows Whitmore's arrest is a saga that draws together the explosive tension in the city, the rise of the Black Panthers (and their later internal division between the East Coast and West Coast Party membership), and the development of a corruption investigation into the NYPD that would leave virtually no officer untouched and forever change the way the NYPD did business.

English, the author of Havana Nocturne and Born to Kill, has a deft hand with history, never forgetting to keep the focus on the human toll of the events in his work. In The Savage City, English returns again and again to Whitmore and Dhoruba bin Wahad, one of the founding members of the Black Panther Party in NYC. The contrast between the two men - Whitmore, young, timid, isolated and passive, and Wahad, self-educated, politically-minded, and driven - is striking, but their stories keep The Savage City focused.

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