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Thursday, March 06, 2008

Book Review: Ellington Boulevard

Due to the fact that I read books at a faster pace than I review them on my weekly page, I've decided to start adding reviews to this page. Strangely, the first review I post here is for a work of fiction, which I rarely read, much less review.

Ellington Boulevard (2008) by Adam Langer
Speigel & Grau
Hardcover, 352 pages

This third novel by Adam Langer follows the first two with a geographical specificity in title and content. The boulevard in the title is actually just one of Manhattan's many numbered E-W streets (West 106th), referred to as Ellington Boulevard by those in real estate to make properties sell faster, to raise the image of a street and area in the process of gentrification. Residents refer to it by its number, but more and more of those residents are leaving faster and faster every day. One of those residents is the tenant of apartment 2B in the Roberto Clemente building. As we meet all the characters involved in the sale of that one-bedroom (the seller, the buyer, the buyer's husband, the mortgage broker, the tenant's dog, etc.) we see not only how their lives are changed by the act of exchanging property ownership, but how their lives are intertwined in a manner that makes Manhattan come across as a small town where, unbeknownst, everybody is removed not by six degrees, but two.

The changes these character undergo mirror the changes that Manhattan undergoes every day. It could be said that these changes are one and the same: people move, people leave and join lovers, people lose and start businesses, people lose and make money. Ultimately, people in Manhattan wear their lives not only on their sleeves but in the buildings and spaces that give the island its shape, its character. While this fact might not be any different than, say, a small town where much of the same occurs, in Manhattan it is amplified by the mere fact of 2 million residents share a little over 30 square miles.

Realizing that constant change is unavoidable, is Manhattan's current transformation -- into a place where only the rich can afford to live -- a good one? Answering that question is not the point of Langer's story (who may or may not agree that Manhattan is heading in that direction), but his setting of apartment 2B in an area undergoing the type of change that forces out well-established residents who can't afford rising rents means Langer dances around the issue that could said to be at the core of the real estate game: increasing properties values into the stratosphere, or until the bubble bursts and everything falls back to earth. And dance he does, literally, as Langer creates a story within a story, Ellington Boulevard: The Musical, in which real estate, literary criticism, and love are put to Broadwayesque tunes.

Without giving anything away, I'm tempted to say that the book's ending says the most about the author's attitude to Manhattan and its constant change. All I'll say is the book doesn't end in Manhattan, because, to put it simply, one just has to get away from the city sometimes. That makes sense. It's a not-too-far-fetched cliche that New Yorkers seldom see or go very far beyond New York, and there's obvious disadvantages to that mental and physical isolation. Ironically, the desirability of Manhattan is only furthered by detachment, by the imaginings that happen when one is away. These mental images, these recollections make one want to move or move back to the city, adding to that constant change that makes the resident of apartment 2B, for example, have to find a new place to live.


  1. Did you know The Duke once played Crown Hall? And his band is going to do so again? Best regards, -E

  2. When I was growing up, we always called 106th St. Duke Ellington Blvd, not Ellington Blvd. I'm nitpicking, but still...
    I see Langer grew up in Chicago.... that explains it.


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