It’s the summer of 1988, and a series of bubbles are about to burst. Michael Dukakis, riding high off a triumphant Democratic convention, holds a sizable lead over Vice President George Bush in the polls. The New York Mets, carried by twin superstars Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden, are dominating the National League East, and dreams of a second World Series title in three years dance in fans’ heads. And on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the Seltzer family and the other residents of the neighborhood are thrilled to see Puerto Rican drug dealers plying their trade on 10th Street, because they keep out even worse offenders: the Dominican drug dealers, who sell heroin instead of marijuana, and the yuppies, who bring sushi and wine bars.
Nathan Seltzer owns a copy shop in the neighborhood that, on good days, manages to break even. His father is a failed but beloved entrepreneur, and his wife, Sonia, struggles, in between massage clients, to complete her epic play on anarchist Emma Goldman. Feeling intensely claustrophobic on the subway one day, Nathan distracts himself with thoughts of the local German baker’s voluptuous daughter, Karoline, and soon enough he finds himself embroiled in an illicit affair, complete with lessons on making the scrumptious pastries that are a mainstay of her parents’ shop. Closing in at every corner are the money demons, offering ever-increasing sums of money to close out, take stock and move on, abandoning the beloved neighborhood for greener pastures. Should Nathan take $500,000 for his shop and leave, or stand his ground? And what to do about this ever-worsening claustrophobia?
Such are the questions posed in this comedy of gentrification written by Mark Kurlansky, whose recipe has admirably re-created the texture of the pre-boom neighborhood, with just the right mixture of sweet and tart, tangy and spicy. “Boogaloo on 2nd Avenue” is a cocktail of Jews, Italians, Puerto Ricans, Poles, Germans and Dominicans, of different eras, music and, above all, foods, clashing and conjoining. Kurlansky, best known as the author of the idiosyncratic histories “Salt,” “The Basque History of the World” and “Cod,” brings a similarly sharp historian’s eye to the texture of daily urban life.
This, though, is not a novel of grand gestures or of world-changing drama; it is merely the story of one neighborhood, one summer and one small cast of characters. As such, its pleasures are small, the size of one bite of a mouth-watering pastry, or the length of one vibrant, active city block: Jasha, the owner of the shvitz baths, painting his building pink and hanging photos of Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand to attract that elusive gay clientele he has heard enjoys frequenting bathhouses; Rabbi Litvak trying to adapt his Puerto Rican neighbor’s recipe for pork fat-intensive mofongo pie for a kosher audience; Nathan and his father’s confused litany of hasty excuses after running into each other following separate extramarital trysts; a therapist’s aside that “wealthy neurotics root for the Yankees.” It is a novel of joyous confusion, a celebration of mongrelism and human weakness whose appropriate motto is the Emma Goldman quote provided by Nathan’s wife, Sonia: “The scriptures tell us, God created man in His own image, which has by no means proven a success.”
Kurlansky is also painting a portrait of a neighborhood in flux, the old standbys fading irrevocably into the semilegendary past, replaced by a newer, less colorful array of the young and upwardly mobile. In Kurlansky’s world, gentrification is a belated collective agreement to abide by the rules of competitive capitalism, and in the shakeout, some unlikely successes (like the drug dealer turned vegetable man, Felix) emerge.
While understanding those who do abide by such rules, “Boogaloo on 2nd Avenue” is also a tribute to those who don’t — like Harry, who refuses to collect rents from his tenants, and famed one-hit wonder singer Chow Mein Vega, whose smash single provides the book with its title. While performing at a tribute show to Harry, Chow Mein is approached by a local promoter who offers to book a tour. He refuses, telling him, “Everybody has to have something that isn’t for sale…. If you are poor, it is even more important to keep something for yourself.” Such is the song of the Lower East Side, and gentrification, whose chorus goes, again and again, ad infinitum: Adapt or die. It is Kurlansky’s insight that those who don’t adapt have their own songs, as well.
Saul Austerlitz is a freelance writer in New York City.
Boogaloo on 2nd Avenue: A Novel of Pastry, Guilt, and Music
By Mark Kurlansky
Ballantine Books, 336 pages, $24.95.