Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Bright Lights, Big Cities

An idiosyncratic, completely subjective list of books for the urban romantic.

By Elizabeth Manus

DECEMBER 8, 1997:  Ever heard the expression "City air makes men free"? Some of us believe it. And for people who live in cities but still can't get enough of them, there are city books. Herewith, some favorites -- admittedly, with a New York City bias.

I'm not familiar with Carnegie-Mellon University, or the bridge near it, or the Oakland area of Pittsburgh. I do not know if Schenley Park is full of green, or how the air of the Shadyside section of town differs from that of East Liberty. You may not either. Regardless, Michael Chabon's debut novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (HarperCollins, $12 paper), will make the trip worth someone's while. Art Bechstein, fresh from college, is trying to gain a foothold in the world. Watch him try to sort out his sexuality, come to terms with his gangster father, and (with friends Phlox, Arthur, and Cleveland) generally remind readers what life felt like in those suspended moments after graduation.

The Biltmore is no more, and Rollerblades have made skate keys obsolete, but J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (Lb Books, $5.99 paper) defies the passage of time. Some say it's the ultimate prep-school novel; I say it's a hilarious New York City love letter disguised as a study in alienation. You and your friends probably haven't read it since eighth grade; all you remember is Holden's question about where the ducks go in the winter. Fine. Time to get reacquainted with Sally's phoniness, Phoebe's grace, and the quintessential New York -- from Radio City to vomity cabs.

It's not often that quietly jubilant strangers approach me to remark on the book I am reading, but this is precisely what happened, on the T and on line at a café, when I was holding Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate: A Novel in Verse (Vintage Books, $14 paper). What sets the book apart from just about every other work of this century is that it is a long narrative poem comprising 690 sonnets, wrought with humor, sympathy, and great skill. The five main characters -- John, Liz, Phil, Ed, and Janet -- take readers all around the Bay Area as they negotiate matters amorous and deadly serious. Visit Café Trieste, Sutro Tower, Printer's Ink, Livermore Lab (a/k/a Lungless Labs), Stanford, Sonoma, and, of course, that bridge.

. . . on the crests
Of hill and bridge red light congests
The sky with rubies. Briskly blinking,
Planes -- Venus-bright -- traverse the

Ed drives on, hardly knowing why,
Across the tall-spanned bridge. Unthinking,
He parks, and looks out past the strait,
The deep flood of the Golden Gate.

Besides being a city novel, Golden Gate ranks among our era's most moving novels about friendship.

Where Seth sketches '80s NoCal life, Armistead Maupin and his Tales of the City (HarperPerennial, $13 paper) offers readers countless excursions within the San Francisco city limits, kicking off a six-volume series that grew out of a serial for the San Francisco Chronicle. The tales tell of the denizens of 28 Barbary Lane -- Mary Ann Singleton, Michael "Mouse" Tolliver, Mona Ramsey, Brian Hawkins, and landlady extraordinaire Anna Madrigal. Between the five of them, no precinct is left unprobed, from Nob Hill to the Castro. In churches, offices, parks, private clubs, galleries, and, of course, homes, the city and its demimondes come vividly to life. Let the zany soap opera-like adventures of this bunch wear someone out: give a deserving soul all six volumes (including More Tales of the City, Further Tales of the City, Babycakes, Significant Others, and Sure of You, each $13 paper from HarperPerennial).

Bookish, editorial types -- especially female ones -- may feel grateful to Mary Cantwell for her memoir Manhattan, When I Was Young (Penguin, $11.95 paper), with its elegance, its honesty, and its clear-eyed view of Manhattan in the 1950s and '60s. For a small-town girl, Cantwell caught up fast with the bohemians and cosmopolites. And she has an amazing capacity for remembering: she tells us what the place smelled like, walked like, looked like, ate like, and smoked like. Recollections of her life at fashion magazines -- writing "deep cutlines" at Vogue, listening to editors screech about buttons and ruffles at Mademoiselle -- prove equally edifying. Hers were the days when a railroad flat on 96th Street rented for $28 a month, when Buster Keaton movies screened Sunday mornings at the old Needle Trades Auditorium, when foghorns still sounded on the Hudson. Not bad.

His surname may be hard to pronounce, but Julius Knipl, real estate photographer, is a man every true metropolitan can appreciate. And he's a cartoon character, so he's very approachable. Look for him in Ben Katchor's Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay (sadly, out of print, but available directly from Katchor, Box 2024, Cathedral Station, New York, NY 10025, $15.50 postpaid) and Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: Stories (Little, Brown, $12.95 paper). Discover the joys of his dreamlike, rumpled urban wonderland, where lonely, hatted men eat in lunchrooms, and where the Evening Combinator newspaper chronicles the dream life of the city's residents. Ponder the history of wrapped drinking straws. Observe the licensed expectorator at work. Revel in the forgotten, the quotidian, and the melancholy.

One fun thing to do very late at night in New York City is to walk a deserted avenue and listen for the voices of the dead. The city teems with them. But when one's hearing isn't tuned to the right frequency, it's also good to try settling into some pillows and opening up E.L. Doctorow's monumental Ragtime (Modern Library, $15.50). Here's Harry Houdini crashing his car into a telephone pole; there's Emma Goldman giving Evelyn Nesbit an erotic massage in a Lower East Side rooming house. The WASPs, Jews, and blacks of Doctorow's Gilded Age New York eloquently give voice to the raucous strains
of the American experiment.

Cynthia Ozick's daring and surreal The Puttermesser Papers (Alfred A. Knopf, $23) is recommended in another section of this issue, but it merits mention here because of the magnificent urban Arcady that takes shape in its pages. Ruth Puttermesser, a supremely intelligent and idealistic civil servant, dreams a dream of City and an ideal Civil Service. With the help of a golem she fashions in her bathtub, Puttermesser becomes mayor of New York and transforms it into "a rational daylight place." Everything wrong rights itself. Visionary hearts take office at City Hall. Streets are given over to garden rows. No more crime, no more slums, no more white flight. A sign near Puttermesser's desk reads: WHAT YOU ARE, NOT WHOM YOU KNOW. It's clear enough from this that her city won't last, but while it does, it's beautiful.

Elizabeth Manus can read and dodge traffic at the same time.

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