Ghost Town, Tales of Manhattan Then and Now
Last night I read the first story of three in Patrick McGrath’s Ghost Town. I thought “The Year of the Gibbet,” set during the first year of the British occupation of Manhattan island, in the fall of 1776, was both convincing and compelling.
Written in a style—determined mostly by the chosen syntax and lexicon—that so mimics what we know or imagine to be the speech, and thought, of the era, this novella successfully places the reader in a land and time so swamped now by everything that has happened since that it is hard to imagine it was ever the way McGrath describes it.
I’m referring in part to the geography and landscape of 18th century Manhattan, where cattle grazed just north of Warren Street and one could quite possibly catch, as McGrath suggests, the pastoral scents of unplowed fields on the breeze as you sailed past a village destined to become one of the largest cities in the world.
All my life I have lived in New York. I was too young properly to understand the events which preceded the Revolutionary War, but I can still recall an innocent time when Manhattan was a place of farms and tranquil orchards and it was said that visitors smelled the island even as their vessels came beating up through the Narrows, our wild-flowers and fruit trees.
It is a world of true revolutionary fervor and desperation in this country that McGrath recreates in the short space of sixty-one pages, as well as visceral and ideological animosity—the kind people are willing to kill and die for—towards the English masters, a time when Americans (that is, North Americans, or estadounidenses) were treated with the same brand of disdain that the European descendants in this country tend to reserve now, for example, for Latin Americans.
Though political in the sense that the context is that of the United States war of liberation, the novella revolves more intimately around the relationship between the narrator and his mother, whose death the narrator blames himself for. And this being McGrath, that mother-son relationship has an element of the obsessional in it.
This story is tight, dramatic, and tense, written in an almost spare prose.
The gibbet stood outlined against a chill blue sky. A noosed rope hung from its crossbeam. Beneath it was drawn up a flatbed wagon with a pair of horses harnessed to it. A squad of redcoats stood to attention in the roadway close by and a small crowd of Americans was gathered a little distance away. The drummer began a slow, muffled roll.
McGrath has so vividly imagined Canvas Town and the port area where prisoners of war were interned on “hulks” and starved to death there, that he has managed to impart the story with the authority of an historical document.
War—and every situation spawned by, and associated with the suffering of war—is inherently dramatic, as material. It is the man-made incubator where character is tested, and where failure can simultaneously be both relative and absolute. Reading “The Year of the Gibbet” made me want to read more about the American War of Independence, so that I might avoid, by knowing more about it, any tendency whatsoever to sentimentalize that war in any way.*
“Half a century has passed,” writes the narrator of this fine story,
since the Year of the Gibbet, and the war has been transformed in the minds of my countrymen such that it now resembles nothing so much as the glorious enterprise of a small host of heroes and martyrs sustained by the idea of Liberty and bound for that reason to prevail in the end.
This we are told by an author who is a native Londoner. And to be honest, it couldn’t have been better stated.
*Although the Spanish Civil War, for example, involved a truly heroic struggle by some against the forces of modern fascism, as represented by the dictatorships of Franco, Hitler, and Mussolini, any thorough study of that war will present a mixed, and more human and therefore complex picture of what actually happened on the ground during the bloody struggle. Although I personally believe that those fighting for the Republic were not only defending a legitimate (and progressive) government and the right cause, everything that was done on behalf of the Republic cannot be (morally, at least) justified. There was plenty of heroism in that war, as in every war, but the purest heroism was often occasioned by the stupid and even evil strategic or tactical decisions of commanding officers and, in the case of this particular war, their corresponding commissars.
Photo by CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1331091