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A Novel of the City, Alive to Its Hidden Connections

By Jim Lewis

You’ve probably read this in a review or heard it said at a book club meeting: “The city itself is a character in the novel.” But what does that really mean? Nothing usually, beyond a writer’s prominent use of setting or familiar geographic detail: a scene that takes place at the Met, say, or in a famous restaurant, allowing the reader to fall back on a particular version of reality. It’s a neat trick, and done right, provides context and intimacy, a shared language. Call it setting as set piece, which is all well and good, but set pieces are rigid, not malleable. Set pieces aren’t capable of growth. Cities can’t be characters.

Or so I thought, before encountering Jim Lewis’s extraordinary new novel, “Ghosts of New York,” a haunting collection of loosely linked vignettes that quickly exploded the tropes I’d associated with writing about place. Lewis is the author of three previous novels (all published around the turn of the century) and a co-writer of the story that became “Kids,” Larry Clark’s seminal film of downtown youth in extremis. For the last two decades, he’s made his home in Austin, Texas, where he writes about the visual arts, though he’s hardly lost his New York edge.

The pulsing metropolis at the heart of “Ghosts of New York” is so overwhelming in scope and impervious to circumstance it’s a wonder the citizens that populate it stand any chance of attaining happiness or fulfillment. And still they try. We meet a dealer in Indigenous artifacts who’s lost his store and reputation for love of a woman; the Columbia-educated son of a powerful West African family, trapped in the shadows of his past; an East Village street kid with a voice so pure that fame seems preordained; a photographer arrived back in the city after a decade abroad, reckoning with the memory of her dead best friend. As the novel gains momentum these lives and others begin subtly intertwining — David Mitchell-like — until the gears behind Lewis’s narrative reveal themselves, and a kind of ethos emerges from the urban cacophony: We are all connected in our disconnection, our solitude, our heartache, our longing. We are united by the city, which gives and takes indiscriminately, and in the end outlives us all.

I don’t mean to sound a down note; there are hardly any to sound. “Ghosts of New York” is a wondrous novel, with prose that sparkles like certain sidewalks after rain. Here’s Stephanie, the photographer, revisiting after many years the block where she grew up: “It came over her slowly: The streets were familiar, but the details had been redone. The trash cans were green instead of gray, there were no phone booths … no supers watching from basement railings. New York, busy being new and being New York: Alone among things it got younger instead of older.”