I get most of my reading done on the New York subways, and that’s where I read this beautifully written, psychologically acute book about the residents of a building in lower Manhattan during the final decade of the World Trade Center. Having experienced the events of September 11, 2001 from close range, I can’t claim full objectivity regarding any fictionalized depiction of the events. I can say that when the attacks occurred near the end of the book, I was thoroughly re-shaken, and it wasn’t just the rattling of the subway cars.
Though the two rivers of the title are, of course, the East and the Hudson, which bound Manhattan Island on either side, they might also be interpreted as the twin flows of Time and Life, which Rinaldi’s characters explicitly puzzle over throughout the book. “Those three slow months in Ecuador,” one of the characters recollects, “it was a fever, a level of desire she’d never felt before. Time was so wonderful, she thought. It spreads out, weaving and wandering. It turns and folds over on itself, full of surprises.” But in the same chapter, reflecting on the passing of the generations: “Time is too painful, it twists and turns, it teases and torments. It tips you upside down and leaves you dangling.” And finally: “Time…turns back on itself, and you are never where you thought you were. She begins to think of time as something she could hate…”
Not so much a novel, the book is more a series of interconnected stories that add up to a long meditation on turn-of-the-millennium New York City and the world. Written in a present tense appropriate to the dreaminess of its stories, it concerns a handful of residents of Echo Terrace, a fictional Battery Park City condominium building close to the Trade Center. Though the multi-ethnic cast includes characters as different as an internationally known quilter, a German WWII flying ace, a Middle Eastern spice trader, a Japanese businessman, and a plastic surgeon specializing in sex changes, nearly all are wealthy. Focusing on the rich enables Rinaldi to create for his characters adventures that working class people couldn’t have.
Dr. Tattafruge’s midlife crisis takes the form of abandoning his practice to row up the Hudson to the Erie Canal and aim for the West Coast in a ceremonial canoe he purchased in his youth from natives in Papua New Guinea. Nora, the widow of a famous rainforest biologist, keeps a menagerie of exotic animals in her apartment until something drastic and mysterious happens to both them and her. Karl Vogel has a fleeting romance with a young writer whose interest in Vogel’s war stories turns out to be more than historical. Without the comforts of money, these people wouldn’t have the luxury of living in dreams and memories as they so often do. Using the language of magic realism, Rinaldi spins his protagonists’ gold into imaginative tapestries, transforming the everyday – and the merely unusual – into the uncanny.
This sense of the unreal flows seamlessly between flashbacks and the present day. In one of Rinaldi’s most eloquent passages, Vogel recalls witnessing his superior officer’s suicide during the last days of the Reich, and then wanders off into his own thoughts in one of the book’s most heartrending (and least Latinate) passages:
Life was so dear, so precious, yet in the end it was so cheap. He left the office and walked out onto the field, into the night, and kept walking, to the end of the field and onto a road. The road let to another road, and still he went, numb, not wanting to think. Hitler was dead, and Sinzer was dead. The war was lost, but it had been lost a long time ago, and now it would go on for a while until someone figured out how to stop it. The moon halfway up the sky, chalky white. A cat crossed the road. A dog howled. The sudden wail of distant sirens, and the long finger of a search beam probing the sky for enemy planes… He was heading home, all the way to Pforzheim, pushing on as if in a dream, and, one way or another, he would get there. There were buildings he remembered, steeples and bridges, the school where he had studied Latin, and he was thinking home, home, and he could taste the memory. But that, he understood, was all it was, a memory, because the house he grew up in had been bombed, and his parents were dead. He knew all of that, but it hadn’t yet fully sunk in. He was making his way into a past that no longer existed.
Back in the present day, being interviewed, Vogel finds himself “tired of the war, and tired too of the ones who, so many years later, are still bleeding from it.” But Rinaldi’s characters can never fully escape from past calamities, and are always staring into the face of time, in some cases literally, as when the dying Harry Falcon regrets having been unable to buy and destroy the giant Colgate clock that glares into his penthouse apartment from across the river in Jersey City: “I hate them all. Clocks are time, and time is death. Who needs it?”
One of Rinaldi’s accomplishments is depicting an assortment of characters of very different backgrounds with equal depth and clarity. Even those who get only scant attention are drawn sharply with a few strokes, as with the banker who helps govern the building: “the large nose, the broad, beefy face, the washed-out eyes pale as dishwater, and mostly the hands, pudgy, with short stubby fingers… Thick they may be, but they are clever hands, nimble hands, sleight-of-hand hands that are making money hand over fist.”
That observation is made by the concierge, Farro Fescu, who, in the role of Stage Manager / Mary Sue observes all comings and goings, keeping detailed files of his charges’ needs and habits. His brief chapters frame the main characters’ longer tales, and, considering the entropy that comes to threaten the building’s society-in-miniature, it’s only fitting that Fescu, its human conscience or genius, is both literally and figuratively Balkan. Discovering a crack in the building’s foundation,
Time is good, he thinks, and time is bad. And he suspects, on balance, there is more bad than good. There are gray days, slow days, quick days, and blue days – smart days and days that are utterly foolish. Perhaps the building will fall on its own, from its own internal weakness, with no help from him, simply crack open and split apart, sooner than anyone knows. It’s the Rumanian blood in him that thinks this, the Balkan darkness, always waiting for the next shoe to drop.
The housecleaner Yesenia provides the book’s only working-class tale, and it’s an ugly one. Her escape into fancy – an appropriately humble one, with a working-class carfare – nets a brutal punishment. But surely the author isn’t suggesting that the low-born can’t afford to dream their way to a better life. I rather think he’s just pointing out that the mean streets can really be mean. Though his New Yorkers live somewhat dreamy lives, Rinaldi’s New York is not a modern-day version of Mark Helprin’s from A Winter’s Tale (though Echo Terrace’s rooftop Independence Day party bears a distant relation to Helprin’s images of TB victims lying on rooftops all over Manhattan). It’s not even Woody Allen’s. It’s the real thing.
The 1993 and 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center anchor the book’s story arc and profoundly affect some of the characters. But Echo Terrace’s transformation from multiculti Shangri-La to cynical real estate opportunity is under way well before Al Qaeda coats it with inches of toxic dust. Rinaldi vividly depicts Vogel’s and Farro Fescu’s very different recollections of WWII, Nora’s trips to the rapidly vanishing rainforest, and (in the only tale that seems somehow out of place in the narrative) Tattafruge’s abduction by mysterious agents who force him to perform cosmetic surgery on a man whose face looks disturbingly familiar. These and other stories convincingly and in gorgeous prose embody the book’s two main points: first, that from the perspective of history, September 11 was just one in an ongoing and seemingly endless series of such man-made calamities; second, that in the midst of all the horrors, the rivers of Time and Life still carve great magical islands for us on their way to their perpetual deaths in the sea.
This strain of hope is conveyed best in Rinaldi’s depictions of love, both calm and carnal. The prostitute Maria Gracia, tending the dying Harry Falcon (her client of many years), reflects on her past loves: “Life is good, she thinks. Life is always beginning. If life is not good and not always beginning, then it’s bad, and who needs that?”