Dennis Lehane Books/Ecco, 2013
In her second novel, Visitation Street, author Ivy Pachoda stages an urban opera within the confines of a waterfront neighborhood in mid-aughts Brooklyn. Combining elements of suspense, mystery, and character-driven literary fiction Pachoda offers the reader something original and grand. It’s reminiscent of jazz. Or gumbo. And although there is certainly enough mystery here, buttressed by honest storytelling, to pull the reader through it quickly and pleasurably, the irony is that the genre most attributed to this book, mystery/thriller, is the least compelling part of its narrative.
Visitation Street is set in Red Hook, a nub of a neighborhood on Brooklyn’s south shore sequestered between a decrepit expressway and the churning waters of New York Harbor. The neighborhood itself is clearly demarcated, both geographically and culturally, by the projects, in a post-crack recalibration, and the residential waterfront of cobblestone and faded glory on the dawn of gentrification. And it’s into the waters beyond the abandoned warehouses and listing piers that two bored 15-year-olds, June Giatto and Val Marino, set afloat on a pink raft on a sweltering summer night. When Val is found washed ashore the next morning, battered but alive, and June’s gone missing, there is the staging for a page-turning mystery, but none ensues.
Val can’t remember what happened. There’s no real sense of foul play or any credible suspects. The police make a perfunctory appearance, dole out some procedural profiling then essentially vanish. In the community, the absence of June inspires a perfunctory vigil of rapidly diminishing attention and a cameo by her grandmother. This is not a neighborhood rocked by either Val’s injuries or June’s disappearance. Not even the tabloid-crazed New York media bothers with the story because, as the novel recognizes, “No criminal and no body make for no news.”
Nobody cares. Sort of. This is where the beauty of this book lies, as June’s absence stirs a quiet convergence of tangentially connected characters. It begins with Val. Her eagerness and adolescent banality led her, with a reluctant June in tow, into the resplendent yet dangerous waters off of Red Hook from which only she returns. Val’s washed up body is found by her Catholic school music teacher, Jonathan Sprouse, a once-aspiring Broadway prodigy turned Julliard dropout, who, through a series of steady descents, has gone from the penthouses of Manhattan to a dingy apartment above a ramshackle maritime bar where he spends too much time. Jonathan carries Val’s frigid body to the bodega owned by Fadi, a good-hearted Lebanese man who seeks to turn the tragedy into a catalyst of communal solidarity. On the periphery, literally and figuratively, of the events is Cree, a recent high school grad from the projects stymied by the murder of his sea-faring father years before. Cree is privy to Val and June’s not-so-excellent adventure, which strains his relationship with Val in the mishap’s aftermath. Watching over Cree is an enigmatic and formerly incarcerated ghetto phantom with a curious agenda and stunning talents. There’s a host of other characters, including a crew of Cree’s female relatives who communicate with ghosts, an unreliable wino witness, thug collectives from the projects, Goombas from central casting, portentous hipsters, and a passel of drink and drug addled regulars from the maritime bar. But the narrative really revolves around the rhythm of the unusual quintet.
Within the story of these five characters, developed equally and expertly by poetic imagery and crushing insight, is a tale of loss and of longing for recognition and redemption in a place where the surroundings, both past and present, hold dominion over its denizens, and the only escape is the tempting but dangerous areas that lie just beyond the land.
Pachoda’s writing is reminiscent of masters of multiple genres, including the hard-scrabble literary noir of Dennis Lehane (whose imprint published this novel) and Richard Price, the psychologically-taut narratives of Alice Sebold, the sophisticated mysteries of Tana French, and even the work of YA luminaries Laurie Halse Anderson and John Green, but the work most akin to Ms. Pachoda’s is that of Carson McCullers, who wrote of an entirely different time and place, but where the confines of a sequestered environment creep across the walls of her characters, like malevolent ivy, until the subjects submit or break free.
Visitation Street stands alone, though, as a novel of unique brilliance and stunning prose, a wildly successful amalgamation of styles, yet inherently original, which deserves a place among the finest literary work of its time.
Published on Brooklyn Rail: Visitation Street