The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye is a historical thriller (available March 15, 2012).
New York City of 1845 is a cacophany of competing lexicons. In The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye, the city’s political bosses, religious leaders, starving Irish immigrants, impoverished nativists, civil leaders, race-baiters, headline writers, popular novelists, street hawkers, sinners, lovers, and criminals each employ language as distinctive as a police report’s. But also whispering among the leaning hovels of babble in Five Points are secret loyalties, monstrous acts, and madness.
Forced by desperate necessity to become one of the city’s first “copper stars,” Sixth Ward roundsman Timothy Wilde knows ignorance is a deadly liability. It will be his unhappy fate to prove an apt linguist and to be transformed by his immersion in terrible new vocabularies. Every human’s first language is of the senses, and throughout the novel, Wilde comprehends his environment in heady detail:
The air was yeasty and wet as a bread oven by eleven, and you could taste the smell of it at the back of your throat. I was fighting not to notice the mix of fever-sweat and the deceased carthorse, half-pushed into the alley round the corner, as the beast seemed by degrees to be getting deader.
Whether caused or served by his love for drawing, Wilde is a constant observer, but not merely one. He needs to decipher the underlying significance of what he sees like he needs his next breath. Perhaps the result of having been destitute after his parents’ death and having instantly to adopt the art of shortcutting.
Telltale barrel stains under the armpits tip Wilde to a molasses thief. The fresher paint on a bakery sign points to a widowed owner. Then, there’s the tuck of a lovely, confounding girl’s lower lip that shows she’s ruminating, probably about becoming a novelist. Notices and product ads—use hand soap for ringworm!—paper the streets and alleys. Augmenting all this, Wilde reads the Herald back to front daily, having become literate at the bookshelves of a churchman, father of Mercy Underhill, the girl whom he adores. As aware as he’s become of the direction of every curl against her neck, he’s also alert to the swirling news and views of the day:
...the popish countries of Europe are disgorging upon our shores, from year to year, their ignorant, superstitious, and degraded inhabitants, not only by tens, but by hundreds of thousands, who already claim the highest privilege of native citizens and even the country itself.
-the American Protestant in Defense of Civil and Religious Liberty Against Inroads of Papacy, 1843
Usefully to the newly-minted police force, Wilde also understands flash, the lingua franca of low criminals, the Yankee cousin to so-called Cockney Rhyming Slang. Designed to keep civilians and authorities in the dark, flash is salted through the text, and readers will learn most of it by context or by Wilde’s translations for more-respectable types.
Wilde learned the slang from his several-years-older and much-bigger brother Valentine—a tough giant of the fire brigades and of the Democratic party, a streetwise genius with truly Dionysian appetites. Their relationship is complicated with things unspoken and unresolved. Timothy was still young when fire killed their parents, and it’s fire again that destroys his accumulated savings, his future prospects, as well as the left side of his face, the ruination of which he won’t be nudged by his dominating brother to catalog:
I’d never spent overmuch time mulling over my mazzard previous, though [...] it was a good enough face—it didn’t cost me money when I needed a tumble, and I’ve been told my smile is very reluctant, which apparently makes people want to tell you their life histories and then pass you two bits for your patience.
Now I had absolutely no notion of what I looked like. The physical pain was already bad enough to steal a little of my brother’s laudanum without added aesthetic horror.
“You’re spooney,” my brother had announced, shaking his head as he studiously roasted coffee beans. “Don’t come over all squeamish on me now, for god’s sake. Have a keek at yourself and be done.”
“Sod off, Valentine.”
“Listen, Tim. I can understand perfectly why you’d keep shady at first, in light of when you were just a squeaker and all, but— ”
“By tomorrow at the latest I’ll be clear of this house,” I’d replied on my way out, effectively ending the conversation.
Cutting across Walter Street, I turned up Elizabeth and then all at once shoved my fists in my still-sooty pockets in shock.
As Wilde adapts himself to his strange, miserable new identity as a disfigured Sixth Ward roundsman, he sketches in details for the reader about the general state of want, various social orders and sexual mores, not to mention political organizations—whose neckerchiefs show loyalty by which color and who’s paid to protest against the police’s PIG TEERANNY.
Wilde will notice most of all the plight of the kinchen, the children, and especially the kinchen mab, child prostitutes. Making mental connections between disparate corruptions will eventually lead him to one and then more desecrated little corpses, punctuated by messages to the public that read like manifestos or deranged poetry.
I asked myself about a thousand times since that day what pierced my brain about that particular death. Death, as they say, is common. And death of children even more so. They’re subject to so many cruelties that I’d not believe their survival remotely possible, had I not once been a child myself. Suppose their parents love them? Still they’re playthings at the whim of disease and of violent accident, a holy brightness in their family’s lives shining as fickle as the stock market. Suppose their parents do not love them? Then, they’re released into the world far too soon, forced to sell steaming cobs of corn for pennies a customer on Broadway, or else lured into far worse vocations due to the insistence of ravenous survival. Or else they vanish entirely. Dissolve, like a scent on the wind.
These are the ones for whom a ruined Wilde keeps pursuing skill with new languages that disgust him, such as the cold brevity of a police report on a child’s death:
Stopping, I marveled at my handwriting. Perfectly clear. What an appalling thing that was. Unfeeling in a way that made my gut twist, repulsed by the even letters. I supposed reasonably that they’d need it legible, and next thought that any man who was capable of writing it all this neatly was a disgrace. [...]
My script stared back at me, a monument to steady-handedness. Revolting. When I saw how crisp the sentence looked, how distant-minded, I took the cursed star badge off and hurled it against the whitewashed wall as hard as I could.
Amid many intersecting factions, venues, and intents, the novel retains a glorious and tragic coherence. Without being epigraphic, The Gods of Gotham is a feast of language, 1845’s New York City as a magnificent assembly of newspaper articles, poems, sensational novels, crime reports, advertisements, amateur theatrics, hawkers’ calls, political promises, and flash conversations, making those tender and awful things that can’t be said even more keenly felt.
Clare Toohey is Clare2e here at CriminalElement.com and also blogs sporadically at Women of Mystery. She had a short, surreal crime story appear in Murder New York Style: Fresh Slices. She doesn’t care how many jumbles it takes, she’s determined to enrich her word power.
Read all of Clare Toohey’s posts for Criminal Element.