Kevin Baker is quickly altering the landscape of American historical fiction. His first novel, "Dreamland," burst into flames three years ago a hypnotic portrayal of Coney Island designed to parallel the chaotic city of New York in 1911. His latest, "Paradise Alley," stays on Manhattan, but it moves back to the Civil War, rescuing from national amnesia the worst riot in US history.
Baker's descriptions of New York City could be more pungent only with scratch 'n' sniff inserts. While "Dreamland" rose into the lurid surrealism of the carnival, for this more grounded history, Baker has only to follow the ghastly imagination of the rioters, whose deeds he unearthed in contemporary newspaper accounts. Indeed, this mammoth book threatens Cormac McCarthy's position as the country's most violent novelist.
The enormous story burns for just three days, but it generates so much heat that I expected the pages to disintegrate into ash as I turned them. "Day One" opens on July 13, 1863. A new law has made all able-bodied white men "eligible to be drafted by lot into Mr. Lincoln's army, and shipped south to the war. There to be fed on wormy hardtack, and salt pork, and butchered by incompetent generals while their families try to subsist on begging and government relief." For the thousands of poor Irishmen who've recently escaped starvation, the suppression of Southern rebels seems a distant irrelevancy.
What particularly galls them, though, is the law's provision that any man can buy his way out of military service for $300. The builders, craftsmen, butchers, street sweepers, gasmen, longshoremen, clerks, and unemployed drunks that is, virtually all the able-bodied men who can't afford to buy substitutes complain that Lincoln has placed a price on their heads considerably lower than the value of a single Southern slave.
With a million people packed into the tail end of Manhattan, enduring sanitation closer to the first century than to our own, "all that's needed is a match," the narrator notes. Already suspicious in a Protestant country with strong anti-Catholic prejudices, the men collecting nervously in bars and on street corners have no reason to doubt the incendiary rumors from the front:
"I hear the abolitionists is puttin' all the good Irish men in the front lines," one says.
"I hear they're bringin' a hundred thousand freed slaves to the City, to take their jobs."
Those rumors aren't quelled by the fact that men who enlist voluntarily are shipped out in chains to keep them from escaping and returning to collect another signing bonus.
Everyone feels the tension in the air, the static electricity ready to ignite social unrest in a city already charged by strikes and uncontrolled inflation. City government flees, sensing the impending explosion, leaving 2,300 policemen almost all Irish to deal with whatever trouble may come from their fellow Irishmen.
Meanwhile, the city's 6,000 firemen, also Irish, serve on a collection of viciously competitive teams. (Sometimes, men from five or six different fire houses fight for hours over an available hydrant while the building they've come to save burns to the ground.)
When the city's toxic fumes of resentment and fear finally ignite, it's a ghastly conflagration, captured here in all its consuming savagery. Baker's extraordinary talent even beyond his capacity to uncover such a mountain of grisly detail is his ability to organize this chaos and dramatize it in a way that's sensible to us. Amid this hellish encyclopedia of mob crimes, he manages to run the story through the lives of a small collection of characters spread throughout the city.
Much of the storytelling falls to Herbert Willis Robinson, a blindingly self-righteous writer for the New York Tribune, who hopes to raise himself to the level of real literature by bearing witness to the city's immolation. That grand task, though, is interrupted by his concern during the riots for Maddy Boyle, a prostitute on Paradise Alley, whom he's engaged in a grotesque Pygmalion fantasy.
Maddy lives alongside Ruth Dove, a white woman married to a black man who finds himself trapped at the other end of the city when rioters begin lynching anyone they can find. His efforts to wend his way home through this furnace of hate while trying to hide more than 200 black children from his employer's orphanage provide some of the novel's most harrowing and heroic scenes. His wife, meanwhile, remains holed up in her house, trying to protect their own children not only from the mob but from her ex-lover, Dangerous Johnny Dolan, an engine of unstoppable vengeance who's returned to New York after 14 years.
These various voices and perspectives, so sensitively drawn, allow Baker to swing between cool history and pot-boiling melodrama. Despite its length and complexity, the story moves clearly from battle to battle, around the city but also around the world and through the pasts of these characters including gut-wrenching scenes of the potato famine, the Civil War front, prison life, and back alleys of prostitution and crime. Baker is a master at charting the conflicting political, social, and religious currents as they course through the city. Everywhere in his vision of the mid-19th century lie the expressions of slavery some far more subtle than the South's "peculiar institution," but all hideously degrading.
The brave survival of New York on Sept. 11, 2001, places the chaos of this black week in particularly sharp contrast. Baker's breathless tragedy of the city in flames can't help but inspire a profound appreciation for the progress we've made in everything from plumbing to racism. But the little crevices of kindness and self-sacrifice he discovers amid this holocaust are a reminder of the best qualities in the human heart. Once again, he's lit a fire under American history and made it burn with a roar.
Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.