DREAMLAND By Kevin Baker HarperCollins 512 pp., $26
Kevin Baker's spectacular new novel is often more a nightmare than a dream, but I didn't want to wake up.
Trick the Dwarf, a Coney Island circus performer, opens the novel by claiming, "I know a story," and does he ever. "It is a story about a great city, and a little city, and a land of dreams. And always, above all, it is a story about fire." Over the next 500 pages, we descend into the controlled and uncontrolled flames of New York in 1911.
This isn't the city Edith Wharton described in her novels. Baker has turned that luxurious portrayal of the Big Apple on its stem. His New York is an explosive furnace in which gangsters, prostitutes, politicians - all recent immigrants - vie for survival.
In a seedy bar where the patrons bet on rat fights, Gyp the Blood is showing off: He can break a man's back over his knees. When Gyp reaches for a young boy, Kid Twist bravely - foolishly! - intervenes. After beaning Gyp with a shovel, Kid and the boy are marked for death and flee to Dreamland, an amusement park on Coney Island.
Here, Kid Twist discovers that the boy he saved is actually Trick the Dwarf, who disguises himself as a boy to snatch a few moments of normalcy from his life of ridicule.
The phantasmagoric amusement park provides a perfect metaphor for the city itself. Staffed by the mentally or physically handicapped, Dreamland is an ever-expanding complex of bone-crushing rides, shocking freak shows, and reenactments of disasters.
As Gyp the Blood seeks revenge on the man who beaned him with a shovel and the "boy" who got away, we meet his indomitable sister Esther and their cruel father, a rabbi so strict that his congregation has abandoned him.
Trapped in the crippling labor of the garment district, Esther is saved from despair by her friendship with a young socialist. Together they begin the almost hopeless task of organizing a women's union and striking for better hours. But their modest requests are met with horrifying brutality from the city's police and gangsters, two groups distinguished only by uniform.
Above the fray, but thoroughly in control of it, strides Big Tim, a state senator and city crime boss who owns more bars, gambling rings, and flop houses than he can count. Big Tim enjoys such prosperity and power that he's beginning to dabble in a new luxury: compassion for the people in his city. Why should so many children be killed by thoughtless carriage drivers, he wonders. How many women will be lost in factory fires because the bosses lock them in?
These questions are just starting to break through a lifetime of corruption, but they're in harmony with the liberal reform movements driven by shrill newspapers and the persistent lobbying of the city's high society ladies. That the New York we know today could have evolved from such social chaos should give us hope about modern-day Russia.
Woven throughout these stories of escape, revenge, survival, and reform is a remarkable, often comic narrative of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung coming to America. It's the culmination of Freud's attempt to legitimize his cause, but the founder of psychoanalysis finds himself haunted by anxieties. New York's explosive energy and sensuality overwhelm him. Abused and humiliated in a ghastly Coney Island funhouse, Freud finally concludes, "America is a mistake."
"Dreamland" is a richer symphony of life than E.L. Doctorow's "Ragtime" (1975), to which it's being compared. Baker, the chief historical researcher for Harry Evans's recent "American Century," has perfectly captured the messy, complex, inefficient nature of social development. Thick with the gritty details of unforgettable characters, this is literature - and history - at its best.
*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to email@example.com