Success as a rare books dealer, academic, publisher, broadcaster and author of several non-fiction books — at 70, Rick Gekoski had ticked all the boxes. Time to relax, perhaps? Gekoski thought otherwise: he wrote his first novel, published last year, a quirky black farce mutating into a revelation of love and loss. Heaped with praise, Darke has since been shortlisted for two best first novel prizes.
A triumph, then. Followed by the familiar fate of the second novel — heightened expectations. Darke was a witty metro-politan narrative with a sharp literary edge. A Long Island Story is warmer, more leisurely, awash with period background; an affectionate portrait of the author’s family, drawing on Gekoski’s childhood in America.
It’s the summer of 1953 and Long Island is wilting in a heatwave. Forget Gatsby; we’re in Hartington, a suburban corner of the peninsula — a place of cramped houses, polluted beaches, narrow minds; a stepping-stone to disappointment. Dreams put on hold. Suburban 1950s life is delineated in detail: the net-curtain nosiness, canasta evenings, knitting parties; the complex rituals of life in a stiflingly close Jewish family.
The Grossmans — lawyer Ben, wife Addie and two children — are on the brink of a life-changing move from Washington DC. Ben’s career in the justice department is at risk from Senator McCarthy’s un-American Activities witch-hunt. He has idealistic communist affinities; an investigation would wreck their lives.
For Addie, a reluctant home-maker who feeds on big-city buzz and culture, Hartington spells defeat, but until they find an apartment, she and the children are stuck in her parents’ bungalow, with Ben visiting for weekends. Dreamers both, they hanker after an imagined brighter future.
Alone in Washington, Ben feels his life unravelling, self-medicates with martinis and drifts into an affair. Addie attempts a doomed rebellion — the marriage is splitting under the strain. Addie’s parents, Maurice and Perle, surrounded by simmering angst, resort to rose-tinted myopia, clinging to old certainties, sprinkling the pages with Yiddish (if you don’t know your schlong from your kishkas, try Google). Ten-year-old Jake (Gekoski’s childhood alter-ego) senses their anxiety: ‘There’s nothing more worrying than being reassured.’
In the event, McCarthy never comes knocking at the door, and fanciful dreams give way to ruefully hopeful reality. Not a lot happens. What the novel captures are the passing moments, the days we live in. An afterword reveals that Gekoski has been thinking about this book for 50 years. He’s paid his dues, treating his fictionalised family with affection and respect. Everyone in A Long Island Story is flawed, though fundamentally nice.
But, as Maurice might say, enough already with the nice; back to the wit and ferocity next time?