The Williamsburg Trilogy of Daniel Fuchs

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I was very eager to read Daniel Fuchs’ novel ” Summer in Williamsburg because I have a huge interest in Williamsburg. “Summer in Williamsburg” is the first volume of  his “Williamsburg Trilogy.” It was published in 1931, but it seems to describe the 20’s. Although I am hugely interested in Williamsburg culture and history I gave up at about page 280. It is today a forgotten trilogy and perhaps if you read it you will see why few people read it today. It does give fascinating insights into neighborhood history, but somehow I could not warm up to his protagonist and the plot did not seem to go anywhere.

the major achievement of “Summer in Williamsburg”  is to make the reader feel, even decades later, the emotional suffocation of a sensitive young person, like Fuchs, in such a stifling milieu.

That is, in fact, virtually the whole subject of “Summer in Williamsburg” — a textbook example of a first novel, revolving as it does around the emotional travails of the author’s delicate surrogate, Philip Hayman. Yet Fuchs manages to transcend the narcissism of the genre, at least in part, by making Hayman’s story just one element in a mosaic or montage of Williamsburg life. Hayman willingly cedes the spotlight to neighbors like Papravel, a suave gangster and extortionist, whose attempts to drive a competitor out of business form the novel’s secondary plot; and to minor characters like Linck the brutish womanizer, Cohen the gauche teenage Communist, and Tessie the novice adulteress. Each of the stories Fuchs has to tell, however, is equally dismal. The novel opens with a man committing suicide by gas, ends with a triple suicide and a death by fire, and hardly lets up in between.

More compelling than any of the stories in “Summer in Williamsburg,” however, is the hidden subject that we can now see more clearly: the author’s debate with himself about whether his artistic vocation is strong enough to rescue him from the squalor of his surroundings. “Everything here was petty,” Hayman muses. “People in tenements lived in a circle without significance, one day the duplicate of the next until the end, which occurred without meaning.” As he ponders how to live in such a world, he is torn between two role models: his father, idealistic, uncompromisingly ethical, but poor and defeated; and his uncle Papravel, seductively powerful, who masters the brutality of his surroundings by being still more brutal.

It just did not prove for me to be a page turner. Maybe the portrait is just too dismal.

Other people, however, love it. Here is what  Johnathon Lethem, the author of “Motherless  Brooklyn” had to say about the Trilogy.

There’s nothing on my shelf I flip open for inspiration as often these days as Daniel Fuchs’ three novels about Brooklyn, set and written in the 1930s: Summer in Williamsburg, Homage to Blenholt, and Low Company. They were last reprinted in 1961 in one volume by Basic Books as 3 Novels (I noticed two copies on the Strand shelves last week, hurry!), then in paperback from Berkley Medallion in 1965 — a moment of rediscovery now as forgotten as the original publication. Fuchs published in The New Yorker, was a buddy of Cheever’s at Yaddo, and somewhere John Updike compared him to Willie Mays for the ease of his effects, but unlike Willie Mays he’s nearly vanished from the record books. In the Williamsburg trilogy his grittily enchanted, Dickensian vision of Brooklyn bubbles forward on a jetstream of vernacular babble — his characters jabber in poetry, compressed and glinting, warmer than Don DeLillo’s Bronx argot in Underworld, less tragic and neurotic than that of Henry Roth’s Lower East Side Jews in Call It Sleep, but worthy of them both, and of the sprawling, teeming immigrant culture he made his subject. Fuchs’ Williamsburg is full of Communists and bookies, wanna-be Edisons hoping to make a fortune, young lovers trysting in McCarren Park on hot nights, Talmudic scholars, jewelers, and crooks — he wrote a world, now a lost world. On plot summary, two of the three books would seem crime novels, but the muddled schemers and righteous bullies Fuchs depicts are embedded in his fundamentally comic vision of endurance and suffering, their outbursts of brutality falling like weather or fate. Fuchs’ genius is for the unlikely reverie stolen in a moment of outward tumult, for the glint of sunlight between tenement roofs, the marriage proposal whispered under a screaming neighbor’s window, the trapped butterfly thrilling a sweaty carload of subway passengers. His sensitivity to the place of the movies in his city dwellers lives — my favorite is the ten-year-old who’s in love with Marion Davies — as well as his talent for dialogue, probably made Fuchs’ defection to Hollywood inevitable. He spent most of his career there, resurfacing to write sweetly humble introductions to the republished volumes, then one last novel in 1971. A natural.

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