Book Review: Tower of Babel by Michael Sears
For his fifth novel, Tower of Babel, Michael Sears has chose the most ethnically diverse urban area in the world as his setting: the borough of Queens, New York, a place where over 130 languages are spoken. That Queens, and by extension the city, is a mélange of all these cultures, messy but dynamic, is something that Sears doesn’t let the reader forget over 350 some-odd pages. He also makes clear that competition defines this metropolis, that nearly everyone wants more than they already have in life. This goes for the poor, who have to scheme and claw and work crazy hours to improve their lot ever so little, and for the wealthy, who, despite an abundance of comfort, never lack for wanting to increase their influence and power. Depending on the economic class of those involved, survival means different things to different people, but if one word can be used to describe a trait predominant in Sears’s world, it is hunger. His characters, full of energy and street smarts, pulse with appetite, a sense of want, and he wastes no time using food and eating as a motif to exemplify this want. His opening scene takes place in a restaurant, that pillar of New York life, where business is discussed and deals are made, where dates are had and people get together just to hang out and laugh with friends. We meet Ted, the novel’s central character, and his work associate Richie, a Queens hustler if ever there was one, at an establishment that happens to reflect the heterogeneous quality of the neighborhood it inhabits:
Gallagher’s Pub, a short walk from Ted’s apartment and a quiet place to get work done in the middle of the day, had been a faltering business when Henry Zhang bought it four years ago. He’d made only two important changes. First, he fired all the bartenders who had been robbing Gallagher blind, installing in their place a troop of female cousins. Then he upgraded the menu to better reflect the changing neighborhood, adding Asian, South American, and Middle Eastern dishes. The weekend dim sum brunch was a hit. And the place still made a great cheeseburger.
Ted is a person who has worked his way both up and down the economic ladder. From a humble Queens background, he had the brains and the work ethic to reach and be successful in law school, and he married a woman from a family of Manhattan blue bloods. That led to him living in a spacious and expensive apartment and to being a real estate lawyer with a prestigious Manhattan firm. He handled cases for clients of great worth. However, a divorce and the 2008 mortgage crisis created difficulties for him at his job. Years later, having left the firm and “bounced through two other firms on a downward career trajectory”, Ted has lost his license to practice. He finds himself back in Queens—“home” as he calls it—and living in a somewhat ratty apartment in a building owned by a Mr. Ortiz, who serves from his storefront office as Ted’s sometime lawyer.
A person has to eat. Whatever his background, Ted is now doing no more than grinding out a living as a guy who examines public documents for foreclosure auctions on properties that have resulted in surplus money. Ted then tries to find and cut a deal with the properties’ original owners to get them this surplus money the government would otherwise swallow. When everything clicks, the found owner is happy to have had the money returned, and Ted takes a substantial finder’s fee. It’s all legal if unglamorous, and Ted concentrates on finding surplus amounts of modest size. When huge amounts are lying around, like a million dollars, it suggests trouble, Ted has learned, and so he has stuck with “hitting singles and doubles” instead of trying for financial home runs.
Things change with his new case. At Richie’s behest, Ted agrees to look into a situation where the surplus money at stake is a million-two. The person who must be found is an old Queens woman, and she owns land a development corporation wants to build on. It’s the old New York City story: powerful forces, including corrupt politicians, stand to make a lot of money if the development gets done. No old woman in an assisted living facility is going to stop these determined forces, nor are they going to kowtow to activists upset that another working-class neighborhood will be destroyed. As Ted thinks, “There would be luxury hotels with views of both the Mets’ ballpark and the tennis stadium, and a combined shopping mall and mixed-use high rise”. When Richie is murdered soon after Ted and Richie’s lunch, Ted finds that he must stick with the big surplus money case, and a visit to the elderly woman who could claim the cash leads him into very dangerous waters.
Michael Sears knows his terrain. Queens comes alive in this book in all its diversity, both racially and ethnically. Sears gives us Koreans and Russians, Irish and Italians, West Indians, Arabs, Dominicans, and people of many other backgrounds. Though his prose is merely workmanlike, it is never baggy, and he excels at sharp characterizations. I felt like I knew every person in the book well and that’s saying something as the cast is quite large.
Is there anything in Tower of Babel we have not seen often enough before? In a word, no. We’ve seen urban dramas about sharkish lawyers, politicians on the take, and greedy real estate developers. However, certain tropes work over and over because they correspond to reality. We recognize the world the author is delineating. Michael Sears’s novel is an authentic slice of New York City life (pre-COVID anyway) and an enjoyable way to visit a borough that tends to get short shrift in fiction.