American crime fiction has a distinct genius for geography. In Richard Price's Dempsy, N.J., in "Samaritan" or "Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles," it is often the city as much as any single person that seems to bear responsibility for a murder. That sensitivity to place is also what lifts the work of these writers above their genre, to the level of literature.
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As Ivy Pochoda describes the waterfront neighborhood of Red Hook, Brooklyn, in the first chapter of her novel, "Visitation Street," she seems poised to join this company. Two bored teenage girls, June Giatto and Val Marino, not quite ready to commit to more obviously dangerous nighttime pursuits, take a pink raft out on the Hudson River, but only Val returns — and barely alive. The girls' music teacher, a talented drunk named Jonathan Sprouse, has to drag her from the shallows.
The disquieting drama of this opening is matched by Pochoda's penetrating, lyrical voice. "The stoops are filling," she writes of the evening June vanishes. "It's a hot night in a calendar of hot weeks. The community pool has been packed, its surrounding concrete a mosaic of bright towels. … (B)y this point in the summer everyone's developed a beat-the-heat routine — a soaked do-rag tied around a scalp, a tiny fan held inches from a nose, a cold beer cracked before lunch."
Passages like this one animate Red Hook beautifully, a place caught halfway between criminality and gentrification, uneasily diverse, close enough to gaze upon Manhattan without participating in its prosperities. Here, it seems, is the perfect convergence of story, place and voice.
Alas, what lingers after this powerful beginning is not its drama, but its lyricism. In the hundreds of pages that follow June's vanishing, Val, Jonathan and another person who was near the scene — Cree James, a high school senior from the local housing projects who was once friends with Val's older sister — take turns as the focal point of the book's narrative. This may sound intriguing, but in truth very, very little happens. Cree encounters a local Robin Hood with a secret about both of their pasts, Jonathan performs show tunes with a transvestite friend, and Val develops feelings for each of the two in turn, despite public suspicions about their actions on the night June disappeared. Mostly, however, we just receive descriptions of how sad these characters are. Price's novels, the obvious comparison tonally and geographically, are built on a foundation of impeccable procedural pacing; by contrast the police are barely present in "Visitation Street," and without them the book flails for a reason to exist.
Instead what increasingly predominates against this static framework is the author's voice. So promising at first, its returns diminish rapidly and fatally. Pochoda still has moments of vivid perception (a family's "breath-denying hugs," the "traffic chained together like a borough long subway"), but after a time her poetic interpolations grow wearisome — and finally punishing. They become less acute, too: On one page people are "unwrapping foil trays of lasagna and manicotti" for a picnic, on the next they are "carrying foil trays of macaroni salad and slaw," on the next Jonathan "bumps into their trays of coleslaw and coolers of beer." This is the lassitude of a novel that has run out of things to say.
As the book wears on, this lack of care grows troublingly deeper. The characters, initially sharp, begin to lose dimension, and new ones are barely sketched in; the nadir of this trend is Cree's grandmother, an old black woman with a magical connection to the dead, who says things like, "let the white folks worry about the white folks." You may decide for yourself what to think of that.
None of this is to deny Pochoda's gifts as a writer. The problem may be genre; she has enough talent that, if a real-life crime had forced her to follow the line of a story, she could have written a worthy successor to "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." Even the compression of a short story might have better conveyed the pathos of June's disappearance. Instead we have this repetitive, strangely unadventurous novel, waterlogged out of recognition by its prose.
To the novelist's credit, she does create one truly great character. His name is Fadi, and he runs the bodega where Jonathan brings Val after she has nearly drowned. Throughout "Visitation Street," his faith in Red Hook's future is unwavering, and his generosity — he is constantly handing out surreptitious doughnuts and cigarettes — comes to represent, without heavy-handedness, the promise of community that is Pochoda's most serious subject. In Fadi, far more than in the book's central characters, we find the paradoxical, heartening ethic of our country's novels of geography: that in the end, every place in America, including Red Hook, is the same — just in different ways.
Charles Finch is a writer based in Chicago. His first literary novel, "The Last Enchantments," will be published in January by St. Martin's Press.
By Ivy Pochoda, Dennis Lehane Books/Ecco, 320 pages, $25.99