By Jennifer Egan
448 pages, $22
Underwater, we float (and sink) rather than walk. Enough sensory deprivation occurs to make the world look the same at first, whether our eyes are open or closed. We hear nothing. The only scent we discern is the tinny compressed air of the diving helmet.
The sea in question is New York Harbor, not long after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. The USS Missouri, the largest battleship ever built, is in harbor, soon to be launched with a bottle of champagne smashing across its bow -- three times before the glass finally breaks. Then the mighty ship, resembling a skyscraper lying on its side, glides into the harbor, onto the Atlantic Ocean and off to battle.
We are losing the war in Europe and the Pacific. The war machine has pulled a significant number of men into military service, and women are moving into factories and other workplaces to make up the labor deficit. "Girls" hold many job titles at the sprawling Brooklyn Naval Yard, with a notable exception: diver. No women are allowed to dive into New York Harbor to repair damaged ships or construct new ones. But that exclusion is soon to collapse, as Jennifer Egan tells it..
Through Anna Kerrigan, the main character of "Manhattan Beach," we experience the magical world under water. Jennifer Egan does everything right as a novelist,with vivid characters and surprising enough plot twists. She could have had Anna do some other restricted work, but the formerly secret world of diving opens new sets of perception and experience to us, as Anna sees it all -- smells it, feels it -- for the first time.
Plucky Anna gets hired at the Naval Yard, measuring microscopic navigational components to support her mother and disabled sister after her father disappears, conveniently leaving a bankbook and some cash on the dresser. She encounters a Heathcliff/Mr. Rochester-style, dark-haired gangster lover, first as a child visiting him with her father, years later under unsavory circumstances. Fear not, he has a heart of gold, as far as Anna is concerned. When Anna's sister dies, her mother, a former Ziegfeld showgirl, goes home to Minnesota, then overseas as a nurse, and aging party-girl Aunt Brianna flutters at the edges of the story. Anna's worldly wise sidekick Nell leads her where angels fear to tread.
Egan could have built an adequate novel with only these characters and settings, but she pushes all her work some notches higher with her evocation of what it feels like to be the first woman to experience the previously forbidden world of undersea divers.
She gets it all: textures, odors and aromas, the soft-edged plants with their frilled fronds of daylight, and jetsam with oscillating hemp tendrils. The huge helmet, the final piece of equipment put on the diver by two (male, of course) dressing aides, smells "tinny." Later, the air smells rusty. (Well, what kind of a smell is "rusty?" It is the smell of an old steel-wool pad being used to scrub pots and pans.) A coal-scented breeze is tinged with chocolate.
Divers wore multi-part suits weighing 200 pounds each. Each part of the suit had to be checked and cross-checked by both assistants, from taping shut the trouser cuffs to taking care when letting the headgear down onto the diver's shoulders, in Anna's case, a diver weighing about 100 pounds. The slightest leak of water or air pressure can be deadly.
The sensations of becoming weightless as one sinks down the side of the ship into ever-deeper water, of regaining that weight when being pulled back up afterward -- these sensations open new worlds of experience for Anna. We assume she will be an efficient diver, but Egan takes her from rookie to proficient in steps, each with its rules and rewards, all meticulously explained.
Anna learns far more than how to drive stick-shift, an achievement for girls in those days. Girls are female humans of any age, married, single, parents, childless, skilled, inferior by nature to men. The social and political imbalances of the time weigh heavily on Anna and other women characters. Egan tells their stories without ever sliding into sermons. She shows by their circumstances and behavior the barriers women faced, often without ever being aware of their second- and even sometimes third-class place in society.
Characters of all social classes and income levels coexist, from rival ethnic gangsters to the upper-echelon families some of the gang members marry into. Egan does not spare the child Anna the pains of poverty. When Anna's father loses his job as a union bagman, the whole family goes to work off the books, making and repairing costumes for nightclub performers. Slang of the time and the private twin talk of two little boys add color to conversations.
Egan even introduces an old salt who does not necessarily look forward to the war's end. When shipping resumes in New York Harbor, he no longer will be able to see the stars at night; they will be bleached out by the harbor lights.
Such slender insights also pile up by the dozen in Egan's day-by-day narrative of shipwrecked men, hallucinating from thirst, seeing "night rainbows." The slightest breath of a breeze registers with Egan, and she finds ways to describe how that particular breeze feels on the salted, sunburned skin of the castaways.
Far from being limited by Anna's thoughts and experiences, "Manhattan Beach" creates the awakening America as it shakes off the Great Depression and prepares to fight two imperial enemies, Germany and Japan, to the death if necessary. The characters have not yet widened their horizons; it is too early in the war for that. But Egan's ending hints at new possibilities, if the U.S. and its allies manage to overcome their foes.
Ace researcher Egan could be just the author to take a fresh look at postwar life, too, this time with a woman's point of view. Meanwhile, she has given us plenty to chew on by setting the story so early in the war, when our side was losing and "our boys" were pouring overseas to an unknown fate. I remember those days. Egan is telling the truth.
Stephanie Shapiro is a former News reporter and editor.