A literary tour de force, a magnificent chronicle of a remarkable era and a place of dreams
In a stunning work of imagination and memory, author Kevin Baker brings to mesmerizing life a vibrant, colorful, thrilling, and dangerous New York City in the earliest years of the twentieth century. A novel breathtaking in its scope and ambition, it is the epic saga of newcomers drawn to the promise of America—gangsters and laborers, hucksters and politicians, radicals, reformers, murderers, and sideshow oddities—whose stories of love, revenge, and tragedy interweave and shine in the artificial electric dazzle of a wondrous place called Dreamland.
About the Author
Kevin Baker is the bestselling author of the novels Dreamland, Paradise Alley, and Sometimes You See It Coming. He is a columnist for American Heritage magazine and a regular contributor to the New York Times, Harper's, and other periodicals. He lives in New York City with his wife, the writer Ellen Abrams, and their cat, Stella.
Read an Excerpt
I know a story.
"I know a story," said Trick the Dwarf, and the rest of them leaned in close: Nanook the Esquimau, and Ota Benga the Pygmy, and Yolanda the Wild Queen of the Amazon.
"What kind of story?"
Yolanda's eyes bulged suspiciously, and it occurred to him again how she alone might actually be as advertised: tiny, leather-skinned woman with a mock feather headdress, betel nut juice dribbling out through the stumps of her teeth. A mulatto from Caracas, or a Negro Seminole woman from deep in the Okefenokee, at least.
"What kind of a story?"
He swiped at the last swathes of greasepaint around his neck and ears, and looked down the pier of the ruined park to the west before replying. All gone now, even the brilliant white tower festooned with eagles, its beacon reaching twenty miles out to sea. Gone, gone.
It was evening, and the lights were just going up along Surf Avenue: a million electric bulbs spinning a soft, yellow gauze over the beach and parks. The night crowd was already arriving, pouring off the New York & Sea Beach line in white trousers and dresses, white jackets and skirts and straw hats--all quickly absorbed by the glowing lights.
The City of Fire was coming to life.
He could hear the muffled fart of a tuba from the German oompah band warming up in Feltman's beer garden. Beyond the garden was the Ziz coaster, hissing and undulating through the trees lay the peculiar sound that gave it its name. Beyond that was the high glass trellises of Steeplechase Park, with its ubiquitous idiot's face and slogan, repeated over and over--steeplechase--funny place--steeplechase--funny place--beyond that the ocean, where asingle, low-slung freighter was making for Seagate ahead of the night.
He could see even further. He could see into the past--where Piet Cronje's little Boer cottage had stood, or the Rough Riders coaster, before some fool sailed it right off the rails, sixty feet into the air over Surf Avenue. Where a whole city had stood, back beyond the ruined pier--
Meet me tonight in Dreamland
Under the silvery moon
Soon, he knew, the soft yellow lights would be honed by the darkness into something sharper. They would become hard and clear: fierce little pearls of fire, obliterating everything else with their brightness.
None of them now on the pier would see it, not Yolanda or Ota Benga or Nanook the Esquimau. They would be working by then, in their booths and sideshows. They would not see the lights again until they were on their way home, in the early morning; would see them only as they shutdown, already faded to a fraudulent, rosy hue by the sun rising over the ocean.
Meet me tonight in Dreamland
Where love's sweet roses bloom
Come with the lovelight gleaming
In your dear eyes of blue
Meet me in Dreamland
Sweet dreamy Dreamland
There let my dreams come true
They liked to sit out on the ruined pier during the dinner hour, between the heavy action of the day and the night shows. They slumped on the rotted pilings, where once a hundred excursion boats a day had tied up, to smoke and eat, and spit and smoke and tell their stories: Ota Benga, spindly and humpbacked, no real pygmy but a tubercular piano player from Kansas City, exotic moniker lifted from an old carny sensation of the past--
In the City everything was passed down, even the names of the freaks and the gangsters--
--Nanook the Massive, Nanook the Implacable, slit-eyed hero of the north--who was in fact a woman from some extinguished Plains tribe, signed on after her old man had tried to force her into whoring at the Tin Elephant hotel along Brighton Beach.
And then there was Yolanda. Immense frog eyes still staring up at him, curved beak of a nose, skin the color and texture of a well-used saddle--
"It's a love story," Trick told her. "It's a story about love, and jealousy, and betrayal. A story about a young man, the young woman who loved him, and a terrible villain--a story about death, and destruction, and fire. It is a story about thieves and cutthroats, and one man's vision, and the poor man's burden, and the rich man's condescension.
"It is a story about Kid Twist, the gangster, and Gyp the Blood, who was a killer, and Big Tim the politician, and poor Beansy Rosenthal, who couldn't keep his mouth shut. It is a story about Sadie the whore, and the brave Esther, and the mad Carlotta, and the last summer they all came together in the great park.
"It is a story about the Great Head Doctors from Vienna, and the rampages of beasts, and the wonders of the Modern Age. It is a story about a great city, and a little city, and a land of dreams. And always, above all, it is a story about fire."
"Ah," said Yolanda, satisfied now, leaning back and lighting up her pipe. "Ah. The usual."
Table of Contents
What People are Saying About This
Dreamland is a fascinating and compelling novel. The real star, perhaps, is the city itself, which Mr. Baker depicts in all its garish, squalid, exuberant, frightening magnificence through his intricate patchwork of bizarre and finely drawn characters.
Dreamland is an astonishment -- an irresistable epic made up of equal parts persuasive history and richly satisfying fantasy. With this remarkable novel, Kevin Baker establishes himself as a master of the form.
Reading Group Guide
Dreamland is a historical novel that recreates turn-of-the century New York, bringing to life an entire era and capturing the essence of the American immigrant experience. Each character in Kevin Baker's diverse cast represents a different walk of life from New York, circa 1910.Dreamland's heroine, Esther "Esse" Abramowitz, is a perfect example of the strength and resilience of the immigrant spirit. A hard-working laborer in a Lower East Side sweatshop, Esse never ceases in her various struggles for independence, equality, and fair treatment against exploitative employers and society's traditional views of the role of women. Esse's coming-of-age coincides with her love affair with Kid Twist, a stowaway from the Old World. The action of Dreamland begins with Kid Twist's violent falling-out with the feared gangster leader Gyp the Blood, setting in motion a long series of events that lead ultimately to a startling and unexpected finale on Coney Island. The stories of Esse and Kid Twist are intertwined with tales of a multitude of characters, most drawn straight from the pages of history, such as Tammany Hall political boss Big Tim Sullivan; Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis; Karl Jung, his protégé; Beansy Rosenthal, whose testimony in a police corruption case threatens to undermine Tammany Hall, and whose murder plays a catalytic role in the events of this novel; and numerous others, real and imagined, from Coney Island at a time when it was one of the most miraculous spectacles of the modern world. Dreamland is a story about survival, about human beings living day-to-day, persevering against the odds.Turn-ofthe-century New York was truly a remarkable place and time; while it held for most immigrants more promise than the lands from which they'd come, it introduced hardship and cataclysmic disappointment on a scale virtually unimaginable from today's perspective. From Esse, who was destined to work in a sweatshop and live in a filthy, crowded tenement, to Trick the Dwarf, eking out a living as a sideshow freak, basic survival consumed the bulk of people's time and spirit. For the poor, especially destitute immigrants, life was often a bitter struggle for the American Dream, an elusive and uncertain end in itself. Of course, honest work wasn't the only way -- or even the best way -- to make it in New York; indeed, there seemed greater opportunity through gangsterism, crime, and corruption. Esse and Gyp the Blood escape their common oppressive circumstance through opposite roots. Survival dictates that Kid Twist become a gangster, despite a moral aversion to the work expected of him. Whether these characters sewed or killed, sweat or cheated, earning enough to live another week was often all that mattered. And on the weekend? For Esse, as for thousands of immigrants, the Sunday off provided the opportunity to mix with all walks of life in Coney Island -- the magical city where bright lights cast a soft glow on hard lives and the surf of the Atlantic washed away fears and troubles. All kinds of people came together in Coney Island in a strange and dynamic synergy. Whores mixed with factory workers and gangsters with freaks; midgets lived out their dreams of normalcy and onlookers reveled in the spectacle. When it came time for dreaming, the playing field leveled, and the rich and the poor alike went to Coney's parks -- Steeplechase, Luna Park, and of course, Dreamland. There they could release their tensions and worries and fears, and find excitement in a stolen caress, comfort in the misfortune of others, beauty in a ride that left the surf below and soared in to the sky above... truly a land of dreams that provided a haven from the rough-and-tumble of life in a sometimes unforgiving New York City. Historical Notes: The era in which Dreamland takes place was one of immense social change and upheaval. In many ways, the social landscape changed dramatically to accommodate the rapidly shifting composition of New York's population. From the late 1800's until 1920, foreign immigrants grew to comprise close to half of New York City's already sizable population. It is an understatement, then, to say that immigration played a huge role in turn-of-the-century New York. Kevin Baker's Dreamland is the very portrait of this New York. Besides capturing the essence of this era of rampant change and diversification, Mr. Baker also adhered to a general framework of historical reality. In his own words, he explains, "My own feeling is that you can't beat reality; the best you can do is try to rearrange it." Thus, much of Dreamland is fact-based, particularly as Trick the Dwarf reminds us in his opening soliloquy how Dreamland is "a story about fire," and the infernos described within the novel were very real. The Triangle Fire was a tragedy that had enormous impact on city life in New York and elsewhere in the years that followed. On March 25, 1911, 146 people, most of whom were young garment workers, perished in the fire that consumed one of the city's biggest sweatshops. In the Asch Building, home to the Triangle Shirtwaist Company and east of today's Washington Square Park, firefighters fought helplessly against the raging conflagration. Ultimately, many women were forced to jump out of windows stories above the street, unsure of whether anything would catch them other than the concrete sidewalks below. The other fire central to the book is, of course, the burning of Dreamland itself, which occurred on May 26 of the same year. Workers were putting the finishing touches on fixing a leak that had sprung a few days before in the cavern walls of Hellgate, Coney's version of a boat ride on the River Styx. Suddenly, overhead light bulbs began to pop and explode, which, coupled with a spilled bucket of tar, set the park ablaze in moments. By 4 a.m. the next morning, the phantasmagorical Dreamland had burned to the ground, at a total uninsured loss of more than $5.2 million and 2,500 jobs. Questions for Discussion