Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Visitation Street by Ivy Pachoda - Book Review

Ivy Pachoda has written a luminously beautiful evocation of life in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, NY while producing a gripping and engaging mystery story filled with the ghosts of possibilities, lost opportunities, death, growth, and a possible future. Visitation Street (Dennis Lehane Books/Ecco, July 9, 2013, 320 pages, $25.99) has a haunting and haunted quality which captures the reader as it delves into a down-and-not quite out neighborhood caught between the expressway and the water where formerly thriving warehouses and docks have become dilapidated as their businesses have left them to the drug dealers and gangs, share their space with high rise housing projects and barely respectable lower middle class housing. On the waterfront, there's hope that the neighborhood's ship is about to come in, as a cruise ship company will be docking there. Into this ethnic, racial, and social soup come Valerie and June, headed for an adventure on the water with a pink, inflatable float. Tragedy ensues as June is lost and Valerie, near death, is rescued by Jonathan Sprouse as he cruises the waterfront in the early morning hours. The second release of Dennis LeHane's new Harper Collins imprint, this book is a terrific read that also signals the arrival of a writer whose work bears careful watching as she develops further.

Red Hook is a real neighborhood caught in its own world and set apart by its geography. Ivy Pachoda lovingly portrays its strengths and dangers as her characters, many of them creatures of the night, try to live just short of desperation and improve their lot, mostly by finding a way to leave. For some Red Hook is a trap, while others see it as an opportunity. Fadi, a Lebanese bodega owner, hopes to upgrade the quality of his store by appealing to those who come to Red Hook to shop at the new fresh market or embark on the cruise ship that's coming soon. A corps of teenagers populate the book with their impulsiveness, energy, and naivety. Cree, just graduated from high school, seeks to attend the community college to study for a maritime career, but cannot break away from his mother's grief over the murder of his father Marcus or her gift of insight into the supernatural, which his cousin Monique shares. Jonathan Sprouse, the son of a former Broadway actress, teaches music St. Bernadette High School, where he and Valerie are drawn to each other while his life as a drunk playing in gay bars deteriorates into chaos and guilt. And then there's the mysterious tagger Ren, who brings a touch of joy and mystery to improving the neighborhood and the lives of those he touches. These characters are drawn with an unblinking look at their faults and weaknesses while simultaneously they are pictured as fully human, seeking to maintain themselves and even improve their circumstances against substantial odds.

All this is accomplished in a prose style which is lyrical, melodic, realistic, and gritty. Pachoda lingers over her imagery, never allowing her language to slow the pace of this gripping tale while revealing details slowly but implacably. Scenes of awareness at the edge of consciousness, not quite grasped but always nearby pervade this poetic vision of a world most of us see on the surface while ignoring or rejecting its realities. It's a world where hurt, rejection, and hope live side by side. There are the churches, both the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the storefront black congregation. The parochial school seeking to serve a neighborhood which cannot afford it. The struggling commercial enterprises. The child/men of the gangs of young drug dealers, carefully circumscribed so as not to gain the attention of the real thing. There's hip hop, show tunes, and church singing swirling in the environment. And there are the ghosts in people's lives which they allow to haunt them, perhaps forever. Pachoda offers us a vision of urban living reaching beyond the stereotypes into the real lives of real people.

Ivy Pachoda
Ivy Pochoda grew up in Brooklyn, New York in a house filled with books. In high school she fell in love with playwriting, poetry, and classical languages. She attended Harvard University, where she studied classical Greek. She also holds an MFA from Bennington College in Fiction. She is the author of the novel The Art of Disappearing, which was published in 2009 by St. Martin's Press. A former professional squash player, she now works as a ghostwriter. Her short fiction has appeared in H.O.W. Journal and Canteen and she has contributed to The Rumpus and the Huffington Post book section. Her nonfiction articles have appeared in The New York Times, Fantastic Man, Time Out New York, House & Garden, Maxim, Minx, and BABY. She was the 2009 James Merrill House Writer in Residence. Visitation Street is her second novel.

Visitation Street (Dennis Lehane Books/Ecco, July 9, 2013, 320 pages, $25.99) by Ivy Pachoda is a haunting page turner that draws a loving portrait of the sort of place we tend, as both readers and visitors, turn away from without giving it the attention it's due. She focuses us, in a summer of street heat, passion, and loss with her deep sense of place and the people who inhabit it. The book was supplied to me as an electronic galley supplied by the publisher through Edelweiss. I read it on my Kindle.