When you mention those three letters to someone, NYC, what ultimately comes into your mind? Is it Broadway, Time Square, 9/11, Wall Street, the Occupiers, the NY Yankees or Tiffany’s? Maybe it is a personal story for your time seeing Lady Liberty in all her glory, or could it be the place where you favorite movie or novel is set. New York City could be the place you have always dreamed of visiting or the place you call home, but it is true that everyone is familiar with New York in some form or fashion. Everyone’s idea of this unique yet very face paced city differs from the eyes, thoughts and the imagination it comes from.
A month or so ago I had the privilege of visiting my sister in NYC while on my way back to California from London. I had never been before and the making a lay away stop on my way seemed like an absolutely brilliant idea. I didn’t have many expectations of the city, allowing myself to keep an open mind as to what the city was going to offer me and what it would reveal. Since I had been living in London for the past few years, I had heard my far share of comparisons between the two great cities, but the excitement of witnessing it first hand was still there. Although this would be my first visit to the Big Apple after this experience it will not be my last. The city itself it an amazing place, broken up into different sectors and each sector having its own personality; Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island. During my first visit to NYC I stuck to Manhattan and took in all the tourist sites that surrounded me. From walking around Central Park, to taking the Ferry to Ellis Island, and eating authentic New York pizza I had to admit that I felt the full New York experience.
It wasn’t until I got back to California when looking through my pictures of the trip, realizing what an amazing city New York is, that the thought of New York as a back drop to the many of the novels I have read. From children’s book such as Stuart Little and Perry Jackson and the Olympians to classic novels as The Catcher and the Rye and The Godfather and even the world-renowned TV series Sex and the City, which originated as a novel before becoming the phenomenon that it is, all used New York City as their settling. The authors saw and felt the same things that I was experiencing which allows me to appreciate the work more. There are so many novels looking at the life in New York, I am only going to focus on two that have made a huge impact on my literary influence and my appreciation for good works; The Godfather by Mario Puzo and Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr.
Most people in their life have seen the movie The Godfather, but how many people can say they had gone through the process of reading the novel. From someone who has done both, I admire both works of art for what they are but the novel is so much more than the movie provides. I do have to admit that during this period while writing about The Godfather, I am unable to control myself and find that I was acting and speaking like Marlon Brando’s interpretation of Don Vito Corleone, the Godfather of the movie. But I am getting ahead of myself; The Godfather is about a Sicilian family in New York who are heads of the Italian mafia during the decade after World War II. The head of this family, the Coreleones’, is Vito or better known as “the Don” along with his three sons, Sonny, Fredo and Michael are basically running New York with their powerful influence over politicians, police, “family” friends, and the local businessman. The sons are the arms and legs of their father along with each having their individual roles to play in the “family business”. Even though the novel is called The Godfather the story revolves around the youngest son, Michael and his ultimate role and determination to run the family business. It is easy to get lost in the lifestyle of the mafia mixed in with their Sicilian roots that are integrated into the business and their family life. While reading the book, the reader cannot help but become engulfed in the atmosphere of the mafia with all the violence, tradition, and devotion that the members of the family must live with. Family becomes an essential part of their everyday lives, weaving in and out of business and the normality of life they cling to. The novel is dramatic, dark, mysterious, and fascinating to see the deep influence and commitment the characters have to the wellbeing of their family. New York is the perfect setting for this novel during a time when Italian immigrants were soaring into New York; finding a balance of their new lives and keeping the traditions they left behind. It is a mixed of different backgrounds and The Godfather show a first-hand encounter with a family making it in this big, bad city and remaining true to their identity.
Staying on the same spectrum of using “dark” fiction, Last Exit to Brooklyn is not a novel for those with a weak stomach or the faint hearted. The novel is broken up into six stories all intertwined with one another about a group of individuals who live in the lower class areas of Brooklyn. They must overcome their every day struggles in order for them to survive in the roughest, toughest areas of the city. There are prostitutes, transvestite hookers, gang members, in the closet homosexuals, alcoholics, drug abusers, wife-beating fathers that deal are some of the characters the reader encounters when trudging through this murky work. The book is full of earth shattering scenes and ideas that were deemed unsuitable for the British public when it was published in 1964. The novel, being as scandalous as it was, was ultimately banned by the British Government till 1968, which brought into new regulations on British censorship. It is understandable to see where the government was coming from but the American public, thanks to Freedom of speech, was able to read this transforming novel. This novel will put knots into your stomach as the characters deal with the horrific events in their lives; mainly referring to the very detailed rape scene that occurs in the novel. This novel is complex, gut wrenching, disturbing but yet absolutely brilliant at the same time. It shows a dirty, grittier side to New York and showing the aggravating side to a society that most people would not have ever witnessed. Just remember when picking up this book, do not think it is going to be a lovely story about Brooklyn; it’s not, far from it. So with caution, this book will transform the way you see books and the way you may view American society but it will be for the best.
New York City is one of the most fascinating places I have ever been and since being there I have become more curious about novels that use this city as a backdrop to their stories. I unfortunately wasn’t able to experience the entire city while I was there, which gives me the perfect excuse to go back. I enjoyed my time in New York and looking back on it, even though the visit was a short, I have memories that will last longer than the trip did.
(Photos in Order: View of Manhattan from the Ferri to the Statue of Liberty,Marble Arch in Soho, Statue of Liberty, NY Stock Exchange, Central park, book covers, then me in the Subway)