What a surprise this evening to find as I sat down to dinner reading the NY Post that John Podhoretz, normally a political commentator, wrote a book review in his column. Podhoretz regularly writes for the NY Post (actually he was its Op-Ed editor a few years ago) and now serves as editor for Commentary magazine. Podhoretz is also the son of well respected Conservative writer, Norman Podhoretz.
“The first great novel of Queens” is what he called Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves: A Novel.
It’s a magnificent piece of work, not only the best first novel in memory but the best American novel in a very long time.
In its 640 pages, Thomas relates the heartrendingly intimate story of a small Irish Catholic family over the course of more than 60 years — and almost offhandedly tells an equally powerful and broader tale about the changes in New York and America over that same time.
Eileen Tumulty is the only child of working-class Irish immigrants living in Woodside. Her mother is a cleaning woman at the Bulova Watch factory in Astoria; her father drives a truck for the Schaefer Brewery.
I have not read the novel, nor have I even heard of Matthew Thomas. What struck me was Podhoretz referred to the work as set in Queens, NY, which as New Yorkers know is part of New York City. New York City for those that don’t know is composed of five boroughs, Manhattan, The Bronx, Staten Island, Brooklyn, and Queens. Manhattan and The Bronx constitute the original city. Brooklyn, which comprised of Kings County and Queens County, had been its own city until 1898 when it joined with New York City, across the river. Kings County took on the name of Brooklyn for its borough name, and Queens County simply took on Queens. Staten Island was also added in 1898 to form the five boroughs.
There have been lots of novels set in Manhattan. Henry James and Edith Wharton both had several. J. D. Salinger, Don DeLillo, Tom Wolf, and Paul Auster famously come to mind. Also numerous books have been set in Brooklyn, the borough where I grew up. Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is most memorable, and others by Bernard Malamud, Chaim Potock, Jonathan Lentham, and you can find “9 Great Novels” listed here. But as to the other three boroughs, one is hard pressed to really come up with anything. The famous crash scene in The Great Gatsby happens in Queens, but for the most part the novel oscillates between Manhattan and Long Island. You can find a fascinating list of novels set in New York City here. If you go through each one, you might find one set in the outer boroughs, but I didn’t have the time to do so. But as a lifelong New Yorker (except for my birthplace)– grew up in Brooklyn, living most of my adult life on Staten Island—I should read a few of them. As I scan the list, I’ve probably only read seven or eight.
As to Podhoretz’s review, I can’t say it’s a great review. He practically runs through the whole plot without seeming to get to the heart of the work. If anything is the kernel of the work, perhaps it’s this:
Eileen’s dissatisfactions are subsumed in her deep commitment to duty and love in the course of what may be the finest fictional portrait I’ve ever read of a family coping with a degenerative disease.
Eileen sacrifices herself. Connell, who worships his dad, can’t bear to see him slip away — and toys with discarding not only his mother’s hopes for him but his own ambitions as well, in a self-abnegating journey back to the working class that his parents had so painstakingly pulled themselves out of.
It does sound interesting. It sounds very New York. Podhoretz adds this little tidbit on Matthew Thomas.
Thomas, 38, was a teacher at Xavier HS in Manhattan who wrote the book in a one-bedroom apartment in Queens he shared with his wife (and, eventually, their twins).
He sold “We Are Not Ourselves” to Simon and Schuster for a million-dollar advance after 10 years of work, a rare feel-good story for American publishing in the 21st century.
His gorgeous book represents the literary redemption of his family, his people . . . and his borough.
I love redemption novels. I might just pick it up, though it’s long for a work that’s not an avowed classic for me to read. If anyone reads it, let me know what you thought.