Brooklyn is important because I was born there. Well, I actually wasn’t born there; I was born in Mt Eden Hospital in the Bronx, and I lived with my parents in my grandparents’ apartment on the Grand Concourse until our basement flat in Brooklyn was ready.
And I didn’t really grow up in Brooklyn, either: we moved from Sheepshead Bay to a full-blown ranch house in suburban New Jersey when I was seven. But whenever anyone asks me where I’m from, ‘Brooklyn’ is my instinctual answer. That’s because Brooklyn isn’t just a place on a map, but a spiritual – more specifically, a literary landscape. It has inspired me, as it has inspired many other authors, almost as long as it has been a borough of New York City (that’s a little over one hundred and twenty years, and counting).
An entire genre of war and post-war fiction sprouted from that overbuilt Brooklyn soil. There’s Betty Smith’s ‘A Tree Grows In Brooklyn’ (1943), about a lonely Irish girl, her doting aunt, and her charming but alcoholic father, and Irving Shulman’s ‘The Amboy Dukes’ (1947) about Jewish gangs of East New York. Most famously, there’s Hugh Selby Jr’s ‘Last Exit To Brooklyn’ (1965), where longshoremen and transvestites try to eke out a living amidst the waterfront dime shops and nickel bars.
This phenomenon is not limited to the generation of writers working after the Second World War. Colm Tóibin’s eponymous ‘Brooklyn’ (2009) updates the age-old tale of a post-war Irish immigrant and a local lad (who happens to be Italian) and makes it fresh for the 21st century.
And, of course, as I’ve said, Brooklyn has inspired me. It’s practically a character in my novel ‘Vinegar Hill,’ where a young Jewish poet and a champion swimmer (for Brooklyn College, natch) fall in love and help to uncover a German spy nest located near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The borough is featured less prominently in my novel ‘Hotel Continental’. Most of the action takes place in Vietnam, but the main character is from Brooklyn, and his memories of his family and his friends there color his look on life in an Asian jungle.
I suppose the old adage is thereby true: you can take the boy out of Brooklyn, but you can’t take the Brooklyn out of the boy. I still get inspired reading Hart Crane and conjuring up my memories of standing directly under the Brooklyn Bridge, a breathtaking experience despite the fact that it is no longer (as it once was) the tallest structure in the city. I have never forgotten the roar of the surf or the carnival sounds of Coney Island. And I still carry the same chip on my shoulder that any Brooklyn boy (or girl) carries: who needs Manhattan? Brooklyn is better: the best.
Here in Europe (and, I suspect, in many parts of America), Brooklyn is a tee shirt, a ball cap, and a marketing ploy. The word itself has jumped off from being a specific place to embodying an attitude. This brings me a small measure of pride. I may be decades – many decades – away from living in Brooklyn, but in my heart and soul, I am still a Brooklyn boy.