Manhattan Transfer

by Joshua Potter

There is an astoundingly dense and convincing world set within these pages; it is entirely too easy to get drawn into the heat and rush of the prose, the place, and the politics. There may be finer books about the city of New York, but none of them so adeptly draw on the city to illustrate the uncomfortable truth about the caprice of the American Dream.

John Dos Passos / American / 1925 / 342 pages

Every book I can think of that in some way resembles Manhattan Transfer turns out to have been published after 1925. There is something here of Saul Bellow’s characters in Herzog and Seize the Day as they wander around cosmically large cosmopolises. I can see that Paul Auster probably took a lesson in geography from Dos Passos as he set out to write his New York Trilogy and I was reminded at several points of the tone and timbre of Howard Zinn’s scathing recast of the history of American classism, A People’s History of the United States. It is child’s play to trace direct lines from Dos Passos to works by Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, O’Hara, Barth, and even Flannery O’Connor and Nathaniel West. Depending on the day, the mood, and the company I was in, I might be so adventurous as to venture the claim that Manhattan Transfer is a bit of an American literary lodestone. I found myself wondering anew with the turn of each page: why haven’t I read this before now?

The only stylistic precursor to this work is probably the writing of James Joyce, but you shouldn’t let that deter you. Dos Passos has done for New York what Joyce did for Dublin: he takes the total tonnage of the city’s variegated inhabitants, diagnoses their myriad pathologies, and arranges them incisively in a narrative structure that floods you with enlightening details and ambience. He also borrows, one might argue, from Joyce’s stream of consciousness writing style, but only insofar as it suits his purpose; Dos Passos is interested in presenting you with many facets of the New York existence, but he’s not going to make you drink from a fire hose. The freewheeling thought associations and deep incursions into his characters’ psyches are not so dense and fugue-like that they leave you reeling. Rather, his characters experience the word like you and I do; that is to say, the world is both tactile in its reality and, more or less, mental in its implications.

All that being said, the book’s narrative certainly has no center. Manhattan Transfer is a broad, ranging mural of life in New York that is populated by many, many characters and a surprising number (or maybe an implausible number, given the city’s vast geography) of interwoven plot lines. Some characters stay with us throughout the duration of the text while others emerge only briefly before disappearing into the background. In fact, it takes the book a good hundred pages at least until we, as readers, are really able to understand who the main characters are in the first place. The book is divided into three parts, the first of which introduces the various cast members before the second part crystallizes their relations to one another and begins to telescope in on two of them. In the third section, however, the focus of the narrative begins to slowly circle out again before, in the final chapter, hopscotching around the entire city, giving us only fleeting glimpses of many characters we’ve previously encountered. The logistics of reading the book can, at times, be a bit overwhelming, but the fun of following the characters across the city is a worthwhile reward.

Dos Passos writes with an acerbic, damaging pen. You get the sense that, despite the novel’s intricacies, it was written quickly and passionately in long spells of hurried typing. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the book’s prose style are words that quickly run together, forming unique passages of description. Sometimes these are castoff combinations (such as curlyhaired and highslung) but at other times they are completely novel (rainseething, girderstriped, and absintheblurred … which is, you know, the blur that accompanies the consumption of absinthe, I guess). Each section of the novel is broken into chapters and each chapter is further divided into bits of text that are sometimes only a paragraph in length. It is not uncommon to jump across many settings and people (and, in some cases, even years) within the same chapter. To this end, Dos Passos adheres to very few conventional narrative limits and this allows him to construct many haunting juxtapositions: on the same page we see the beggar in the alley, the millionaire in the penthouse, the seaman on a barge at the docks, and the late night machinations of the young financier.

And his characters will rarely find themselves on the more pleasant side of the comparison. One of the take away messages of the book is that the American Dream is a fickle, capricious deity that will use and abuse you with mirth and without mercy. We see the millionaire spoiled by a bad stock investment. We see the young gentleman bequeathed a large inheritance who, for lack of industry, ends the novel in poverty. We see actors and directors make it big before fizzling out. Immigrants who work hard and get ahead; immigrants who work hard and get nothing. People, rich and poor, commit suicide. The bartender who amasses enough cash as a liquor runner during Prohibition to purchase a mansion. The man who migrates from a rural community looking for work that simply does not exist.

Dos Passos wages class warfare with a maliciousness that makes contemporary allegations of the same look like watered down bedtime stories. His driving point is the one we’ve heard: any person’s station in life is randomly determined at birth. If you’re of a low station, a brief spell of bad luck can destroy you. If you’re of a high station, then your mistakes can be larger, your spells of bad luck of greater duration before you are similarly destroyed. Hard work and industry can beat back the randomness of American life, but not all the time. The rags-to-riches narrative is, in the vast majority of instances, a hoax.

It’s admittedly heavy-handed, but the incredible material disparities at work in this novel are indeed omnipresent in the American metropolis even to this day. I was blown away at the timeliness and topical relevancy of Manhattan Transfer and it makes contemporary complaints that we’ve strayed off of some idyllic path of yore seem disingenuous. When he situates the post-materialist lives of the rich in such close proximity to the very material-focused needs of the poor, Dos Passos illustrates that being an American means radically different things for different people. What is the common worth of an American narrative when its inhabitants are so far at odds? The answer comes back: not much.

Rating: 9 / 10

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