What I've been reading
This sprawling book is magnificent, even though Baker doesn't quite pull it off as well as he could have. It's set in the early 20th century (1910, although Sigmund Freud's visit to New York, which is in the book, occurred in 1909), and tells the story of several people, both real and fictional, who cruised Manhattan and Coney Island that summer. Baker's eyes might be bigger than his stomach, but this is a marvelous ride, for the most part, and although it's a bloated book, it's never boring.
Baker wants to do several things in this book. He begins with Trick the Dwarf, a "freak" at Dreamland in Coney Island, telling a story. From there he delves into the past, and the framing device becomes the most problematic part of the book at the end. Trick tells a story about Esther and Kid Twist, the lovers at the heart of the book. Esther is a factory girl whose father, a rabbi, disapproves of women and who is bitter about much in life, including the fact that his congregation threw him out and he relies on his wife and daughter for income as well as the fact that his only son left to become a gangster. Kid Twist is a gangster, one who works, coincidentally, with Gyp the Blood, Esther's brother. Early on in the book Kid gets on Gyp's bad side and flees to Coney Island to hide out, which is where Trick comes to know him and where he spots Esther and falls in love with her.
Another story in the book deals with Tim Sullivan, a Tammany Hall politician, who attempts to navigate the halls of corruption at City Hall and the newly-empowered unions, which are trying to gain recognition. Meanwhile, Trick himself falls in love with a crazed woman who believes she is an empress, and he gets an entire city built to scale for her at Dreamland. Finally, Freud and Jung show up for Freud's only American visit. Baker weaves all of these plots together - Sullivan needs Gyp and Kid to take care of some dirty business for him; Esther's father begs his son to find out what Esther is up to, which dovetails with Gyp's search for Kid; Esther joins the union and spends some time in a horrid prison for daring to go out on strike. It's a seamless book, and it keeps you on your toes, pushing forward to somewhere tragic, you're sure, but you don't want to stop reading, such is the mastery Baker has with the prose itself.
The two main plotlines are Sullivan's and the love story of Esther and Kid. The others get resolved, of course, but those two are the focus. Sullivan wrestles with his conscience over a murder he and his boss want committed (the one that Gyp and Kid are supposed to effect), and when the union goes out and Sullivan is faced with the reality of the sweatshops and what it does to his innocent constituents, his mind starts to fracture. He begins to make amends, but as he does, we're wondering if it's too late. Meanwhile, the specter of Gyp the Blood hangs over Esther and Kid Twist, for different reasons. Esther fears her brother and finds out that her father is having her followed, while Kid Twist fears Gyp because of the rift between them. As they cling to summer at Coney Island, they realize that they can't live in suspended animation forever, and that sooner or later they'll be found. When they are, it doesn't turn into an action movie, but Baker does manage to build plenty of suspense as Gyp stalks them through Dreamland and everyone's dreams, including Trick's, come crashing down - in vastly different ways.
The ending is problematic for one reason, and that's the lack of a resolution. Trick narrates from a time in the future, and Baker uses the framing device to distance us from the principals, and it becomes more and more ambiguous as he speaks. This is frustrating on one level, because we've invested so much with these characters that we want to know how their stories end, but that's the point - we're hearing these stories through Trick, and therefore should realize that he's an unreliable narrator. Therefore, he allows us to create an ending, which ties back into the only somewhat superfluous part of the book - Freud's visit. Freud's dreams are ambiguous, subject only to his (and Jung's) interpretation, and nothing is resolved when they are brought out into the open. Baker doesn't need this section because the entire book is like that - dreams that the characters have cannot stand up to the scrutiny of reality, and therefore the ambiguous ending is Baker's way of forcing that brutal reality back into "dreamland," as it were, and therefore it becomes pregnant with possibilities once again and could morph into anything. While the ending might be frustrating, it's also hopeful, despite appearing bleak on the surface.
Dreamland is a marvelously dense novel, full of wonderful characters and fascinating plots. Baker evokes the time period beautifully, putting us right into the middle of New York, with all its glory and squalor. It's a gripping read, but a challenging one as well, and that's what we all want out of our fiction, isn't it?