OCTOBER 5, 2013
IVY POCHODA’S NOVEL Visitation Street has the complicated honor of having well-known crime writer Denis Lehane’s name embossed on her book. (Does the publishing company hope some people will buy the book because they think Lehane wrote it? Did I go see the 2005 horror movie Hostel because “Quentin Tarantino Presents” was the main way that movie was advertised? Perhaps.) Visitation Street is the second book in Lehane’s eponymous imprint for Ecco/HarperCollins, following Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season, a more traditional crime novel about a murder at a renovated plantation in Louisiana. Lehane’s choice of Visitation Street seems to exemplify the oft-quoted adage that all novels are mysteries, since Visitation Street’s pleasures buck the genre’s typical focus on cops and robbers and instead explores the mysteries that link a community, examining the way in which tragedy shifts our perceptions of our neighbors and ourselves.
In Visitation Street, the community in question is the isolated waterfront neighborhood of Red Hook, Brooklyn. The novel opens on a frustrated summer night when two 15-year-old, working class white girls,Val and June, are looking for something to do. The opening line captures the sweaty, restless tone of teenage boredom: “Summer is everybody else’s party.” The girls decide to take an inflatable raft out into the waters of the bay, a few blocks away from Val’s house. Several hours later, an unconscious Val washes up on the beach … alone. In the days following this tragedy, past transgressions and overlooked horrors come to light, including the murder of Marcus James, a corrections officer who was killed in broad daylight (in the courtyard of the local housing projects) six years ago. June’s disappearance — and the fanfare surrounding a missing white girl — ignites the simmering trauma of Marcus’s murder, and the story of Marcus’s family, especially his son Cree, becomes an important counter-narrative. Visitation Street probes the painful class and racial differences while investigating the deeper themes of death and its reckoning.
Though mortality is at the core of Visitation Street, Pochoda’s background — she grew up in nearby Cobble Hill — infuses a clear sense of intimacy into her portrait of a gentrifying neighborhood. She meticulously details the streets of Red Hook from the treacherous and lonely waterfront to Val’s middle class neighborhood (she’s a “waterside girl”) to the eerie homeless outpost known as Bones Manor. As if Pochoda’s descriptions weren’t vivid enough, a physical diagram of the area opens the novel, with Val and June’s raft trip leading ominously to nowhere. Pochoda rarely allows her characters to leave the close confines of Red Hook, whose streets at times feel claustrophobic, its water providing a usually false sense of freedom. “This is the place that gives Cree the end of the world feeling he likes, the sense that he can go no farther and still never be found.” Other narratives, from On the Waterfront to Spike Lee’s recent Red Hook Summer, have been set in this hidden part of New York, but unlike those films, which maintain a strict point of view, Visitation Street insists on constantly dancing back and forth across the mostly rigid lines that separate this small community.
While June and Val are the center of the novel’s so-called “plot,” the heart of the narrative lies equally with Cree, who, as one of the last people to see the girls before they go into the water, is a main suspect in possible foul play. (Cue the cops. It is a crime novel, after all.) Pochoda deftly sketches characters from both sides of the tracks, including Cree’s mother, grandmother, aunt, and cousin Monique — a contemporary of Val and June’s who inherited the family power to hear the dead speak. Getting almost equal billing as Val are Fadi, a Lebanese bodega owner who serves as the neighborhood caretaker, and Jonathan, a Julliard dropout and Val’s music teacher, who, haunted by ghosts, is drinking himself into oblivion. Linked by the events of that fatal night, the connections between these characters are deeper and more nuanced than mere circumstance. Pochoda’s solid, varied cast lends Red Hook a small town feel, despite the fact that the neighborhood lies in the shadow of Manhattan’s glittering colossus.
Manhattan affects the trajectory of the novel just as the tides pull the river the girls wade into. Throughout the book, bodega owner Fadi anticipates the cruise ships that will begin docking at the waterfront, sure to bring hundreds of tourists and revitalize Red Hook. While Fadi hopes to raise the neighborhood’s viability, the denizens of the Dockyard Bar are doing their best to keep it down. Jonathan, one of the novel’s only outsiders, connects these places as he gets falling-down drunk nightly at the Dockyard at the hands of his sometimes-lover bartender Lil, who is described harshly: “She has a toxic red dye job and faded tattoos that look like bruises. Her gray eyes tighten as the night drags on. By last call they look like the head of two screws.” Mornings, Jonathan sobers up with coffee at Fadi’s. Jonathan is the novel’s only character who exchanges Red Hook for Manhattan Friday nights, playing a standing gig as piano man to drag performer Dawn Perignon, one of his only friends. Jonathan’s outsider and loner quality — and lack of an ironic moustache — gives him just the right amount of edge to be attractive to the lost Val, and a target for people like her father who represent the old guard of the neighborhood. Jonathan and Val’s flirtation grows out of their mutual grief — his for his mother, a famous singer who also met a watery demise, and though he is empathetic, it still feels as though he is slumming in Red Hook. “If asked Jonathan … might describe his life as a … series of descents.” For Jonathan, Red Hook and his life here have hit rock bottom. He has a choice to be there, and eventually to leave. Pochoda doesn’t give the rest of her characters such an easy escape, and the option makes Jonathan a less likable character.
At an appearance at the Last Bookstore in Los Angeles with Denis Lehane, Pochoda spoke about how she had originally written Val and June as black girls, but then felt uncomfortable with the decision and changed them to white. Though Pochoda spoke of this choice lightly, I found the intension to be integral to the way the novel reveals itself to be about inequalities between black and white, middle class and impoverished. To be clear, it wasn’t that Pochoda felt like she couldn’t write Val and June as black girls, it is that she chose not to. And again, though Pochoda has anchored the novel in the white Val, the ease with which she tells Cree’s story — and that of a black neighborhood in Brooklyn with its storefront churches, barbeques, and housing projects — proves Pochoda’s understanding of the multiethnic nature of 21st-century America. Not all of Pochoda’s characterizations of black people were perfect. Raneem, the villain of the housing projects, and in some ways the novel, is pure, uncomplicated evil, and he serves his purpose as such. Regardless, I respect Pochoda’s willingness to talk about her choices around writing into characters of other races. Often writers of color shoulder the burdens of discussing representation issues in American letters, and Pochoda’s work and openness about her process are refreshing when books like Kathryn Stockett’s The Help — and the controversy surrounding her portrayal of Southern domestic workers — seem to dominate the conversation.
Beyond Cree and his family, the novel’s most intriguing character is Cree’s mysterious shadow self, Ren. He represents the urban ghosts, those invisible citizens who slip in and out of institutions, who make the art that we glimpse in the subway tunnel, who may be making a home in an abandoned building. Visitation Street is being marketed as a story about Val and the ghost of her best friend June, but really it is about Cree, crushed with grief, and Ren, who does whatever he can to reverse that trauma. Ren’s connections to Cree and his family are slowly revealed in a storyline that I found more heartrending than Val’s numbing despair, which she combats with an inappropriate obsession with Jonathan. In the novel’s swirling eddies of stories and doubled characters, Ren’s arc was the most compelling, and his brief appearances left me yearning for more.
At the end of the day, Pochoda’s Visitation Street has given me more respect for Denis Lehane, for choosing such a complex and nuanced story about urban America. Hopefully, the imprint will continue to find authors who aren’t afraid to go beyond labels and safe places.