3.8 15
by Kevin Baker

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A literary tour de force, a magnificent chronicle of a remarkable era and a place of dreams

In a stunning work of imagination and memory, author Kevin Baker brings to mesmerizing life a vibrant, colorful, thrilling, and dangerous New York City in the earliest years of the twentieth century. A novel breathtaking in its scope

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A literary tour de force, a magnificent chronicle of a remarkable era and a place of dreams

In a stunning work of imagination and memory, author Kevin Baker brings to mesmerizing life a vibrant, colorful, thrilling, and dangerous New York City in the earliest years of the twentieth century. A novel breathtaking in its scope and ambition, it is the epic saga of newcomers drawn to the promise of America—gangsters and laborers, hucksters and politicians, radicals, reformers, murderers, and sideshow oddities—whose stories of love, revenge, and tragedy interweave and shine in the artificial electric dazzle of a wondrous place called Dreamland.

Editorial Reviews

Susan Jackson
It's a depressing read but a rollicking one—and it will cure any misplaced nostalgia for the past...Baker's historical knowledge is generally an asset, but occasionally it gets in the way of the story....Dreamland isn't a perfect novel, but it's quite a good one, and it doesn't need this heavy-handed embellishment. Sometimes a plot really is just a plot.
Time Out New York
A virtuoso performance...a miracle [that] has materialized right before our eyes. More than anything Dreamland is a novel about love — love and kindness, generosity and endurance, in spite of it all, Dickensian in scope and intellectual breadth, Kevin Baker's masterpiece is Ragtime but without the sprawling misanthropy; Tom Wolfe but with characters that are human, not merely theoretical; Dreiser but superbly written; Sinclair Lewis but with a mystic's heart.
Bilge Ebiri
A Dickensian epic...meticulously researched and filled with passages of intoxicating, dreamlike frenzy.
Entertainment Weekly
People Magazine
An epic recreation of an era...a boisterous, rollicking carnival.
Wall Street Journal
Remarkable...original...mingles real and fictional characters in an American fin-de-siecle swirl.
San Francisco Chronicle
Brilliantly imagined...an outrageous celebration of a...more innocent America...still holding out for Horatio Alger's impossible American dream.
Linda Mallon
Dreamland is a wild ride, all the wilder because much of what Baker describes really happened...his book is paced like a police thriller and makes for compelling, occasionally stomach-churning reading.
USA Today
...[A] carnival of a novel....historical fiction of an intricate, epic, fabulous sort.
Library Journal
E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime was a dazzling tour de force, particularly his imaginative mingling of the fictional and historical in his story of turn-of-the-century New York. Occupying the same time and space and employing the same device of mixing the historical and the fictional, Baker's Dreamland will inevitably be compared...but it is very different--more personal and less political. Narrated by a diverse array of characters--two Jewish gangsters, a seamstress, a whore, a Tammany Hall politician, Sigmund Freud, a dwarf from Coney Island--the novel looks at the ways we see ourselves, often distorted as if through a funhouse mirror. Events like a garment workers' strike, the gangland murder of a talkative gambler, and the fire that burned Coney Island's Dreamland swirl together in this larger-than-life story of people trying to understand themselves in a New York that seems out of control.-- Andrea Caron Kempf, Johnson County Community College Library, Overland Park, Kansas
Thomas Mallon
A wild amusement park ride...Historical fiction at its most entertaining.
The New York Times Book Review
The Denver Post
Epic and atmospheric...a literary gem, polished on all facets.
The Boston Herald
Coney island's old Dreamland amusement park becomes a symbol for the American Dream itself in this dazzling historical novel.
LA Times Book Review
Joyful...a sexy, dreamy romance....Baker crams every page with impressions, textures, sights, sounds and memories....His triumph is in meshing his fictional creations and a dense historical landscape...The characters' voices, dreams and emotions ring true; their stories...consistently surprise and engage.
The Washington Post
Mesmerizing....Dreamland tells us a great deal about what it means to be 'American.'
Large, knowing, teeming with ambition and personality.
Christian Science Monitor
This is literature -- and history -- at its best.
Sara Nelson
Fans of E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime will recognize the sweeping, historical-mixed-with-fictional style of this sprawling novel about early-20th-century New York, a fitting read as we approach the millennium. Like Doctorow, historian (and chief researcher for Harold Evans's The American Century) Baker hosts a kind of sociological carnival, in which a Coney Island dwarf, a Tammany Hall politician, a sweatshop girl (not to mention Sigmund Freud and Karl Jung, among many, many others) lead parallel and eventually intersecting lives in a tumultuous time whose motto seems to be, Get it while you can. Passionate and violent, with surprising passages of sweet lyricism and rough humor, this expansive and multilayered story is the kind of novel Tom Wolfe might write, were he devoted to an earlier time.

How to introduce and describe each character? There are so many that a reviewer with space limitations is at a loss; it's no wonder that Baker's novel fills more than 500 pages, despite the fact that his plot is quite simple. Dreamland is about surviving and sidestepping ethnicity, poverty, and corruption to make it in America. Each of the characters is, in his or her own way, a striver: Essie, the sweatshop girl, chafes at the strict controls of her religious Jewish father; Trick, the dwarf, at the limitation of his size and his role as a Coney Island performer; Tammany Hall politician Tim Sullivan at the confines of what must surely have been the most corrupt government in American history. And then there's Gyp the Blood, who might be called a pimp with a heart of gold; about halfway through the narrative it is revealed that he is, in fact, Essie's long-lost brother, a young man who has decided that the only way to escape his family is to live as a street thug and whoremaster. His relationship with Sadie, his chief prostitute, eventually leads him back to his family and to love. Jumping in and out of the narrative, like the 20th-century Jewish intellectual version of a Greek chorus, are Jung and Freud, who work at and feud over the development of their respective psychiatric philosophies.

Sound complicated, a bit over-the-top? Dreamland is both, and it can sometimes be overwhelming in its sheer volume and boisterousness. (Here's where fans and critics alike may be reminded of Wolfe.) Still, in its quieter passages -- the love scenes between Essie and Kid, for example, or the confrontations between Gyp and his estranged father -- Dreamland is quite moving. The Freud/Jung scenes -- most notably the one in which Freud wets himself during the recounting of a dream -- provide a kind of egghead's comedy that complements the baser ribaldry elsewhere in the book. Most readers won't "get" everything on first reading, which is perhaps why Baker leads his story to its inevitable and recognizable conclusion: the Triangle sweatshop fire, which mesmerized and horrified all of New York, its street people, immigrants, politicians, and intellectuals alike. It is in these final chapters -- the last fifth of the book -- that Dreamland most succeeds and its many themes are brought together. "America is a mistake," Freud opines toward the end of the novel. "A gigantic mistake, it is true, but a mistake none the less."

Yet for all its violence and pessimism (one can only imagine what the PC police will make of the rather prurient scenes of the whores in jail), Dreamland emerges as a thoughtful book, infused with the kind of energy that has come to be defined (by jealous Europeans, perhaps) as definitively American. Its scope is wide and its characters peculiar -- and yet it chronicles a time and set of experiences that are filled with possibility and of promise. And for all of its minor characters and subplots, the arc of Baker's novel is complete and satisfying. It opens with a scene of shipboard immigrants approaching Coney Island, which looks to them like a city in flames, and ends with a real conflagration: the Triangle fire. Have the characters we've come to know so well perished in what seems the dramatically appropriate result of their mixed-up lives? Will this shocking, cataclysmic event augur any change in the way people live? That's the question that will likely keep book groups arguing for hours, though Baker coyly hedges his bets, suggesting that win or lose, live or die, the world probably goes on pretty much as usual. As the new century approaches, there are still confused immigrants, ruthless politicians, and more than seven million stories in the Naked City. Who will live to tell all these tales? With a wink and a smile, Baker lets Freud -- whom he calls one of the "Great Head Doctors from Vienna" -- have the last convoluted word.

Sara Nelson, the former executive editor of The Book Report, is the book columnist for Glamour. She also contributes to Newsday, the Chicago Tribune, and Salon.
— barnesandnoble.com

The Boston Globe
Coney Island's old Dreamland amusement park becomes a symbol for the American Dream itself in this dazzling historical novel.
The News & Observer, Raleigh, NC
Exhilarating, incandescent and entertaining...you will probably never think about America quite the same.
Kirkus Reviews
A sprawling doorstopper, set in turn-of-the-century New York. Baker's work as chief researcher for Harry Evans' recent The American Century is on generous display here. The various facets of New York and Coney Island, where the ornate park of the title is located, are described in intimate detail: the notorious jail The Tombs, City Hall, the Triangle garment factory, immigrant housing, whiskey bars, and strip joints, all are nicely animated. Meanwhile, dozens of characters stroll through these various locales: Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung visit New York and observe the vulgarity of America; Trick the Dwarf tells of the bizarre and the humane at Dreamland-the dwarfs and the bearded ladies-which is the most familiar world he knows; and Esther, a garment worker alienated from her immigrant family, takes an active role in the labor movement. Also on hand are Gyp the Blood, a small-time criminal; Big Tim, the Tammany politico, plus Kid Twist and Sadie and Clara.

Baker is trying to make larger points-for instance, seeing Dreamland as a grotesquely inspired reflection of New York City—but with so many people wandering across the pages of the novel like extras wearing different costumes, the larger ambitions are swallowed by boredom. We are left with authoritatively described, sometimes brutal scenes of corruption, abuse, depravity, manipulation, and coercion that make up a plot whose purpose is cloudy.

Second-timer Baker (Sometimes You See it Coming) does an excellent job of evoking a time and a place, but the novel fails to transcend the genre of Costume Drama, busy as it is with surfaces and slangs, weather and buildings, workbenches and public speeches: thestory projects no center, and it's too easy to forget why it matters at all.

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
City of Fire Trilogy Series , #1
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File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

I know a story.

"I know a story," said Trick the Dwarf, and the rest of them leaned in close: Nanook the Esquimau, and Ota Benga the Pygmy, and Yolanda the Wild Queen of the Amazon.

"What kind of story?"

Yolanda's eyes bulged suspiciously, and it occurred to him again how she alone might actually be as advertised: tiny, leather-skinned woman with a mock feather headdress, betel nut juice dribbling out through the stumps of her teeth. A mulatto from Caracas, or a Negro Seminole woman from deep in the Okefenokee, at least.

"What kind of a story?"

He swiped at the last swathes of greasepaint around his neck and ears, and looked down the pier of the ruined park to the west before replying. All gone now, even the brilliant white tower festooned with eagles, its beacon reaching twenty miles out to sea. Gone, gone.

It was evening, and the lights were just going up along Surf Avenue: a million electric bulbs spinning a soft, yellow gauze over the beach and parks. The night crowd was already arriving, pouring off the New York & Sea Beach line in white trousers and dresses, white jackets and skirts and straw hats--all quickly absorbed by the glowing lights.

The City of Fire was coming to life.

He could hear the muffled fart of a tuba from the German oompah band warming up in Feltman's beer garden. Beyond the garden was the Ziz coaster, hissing and undulating through the trees lay the peculiar sound that gave it its name. Beyond that was the high glass trellises of Steeplechase Park, with its ubiquitous idiot's face and slogan, repeated over and over--steeplechase--funny place--steeplechase--funny place--beyond that the ocean, where asingle, low-slung freighter was making for Seagate ahead of the night.

He could see even further. He could see into the past--where Piet Cronje's little Boer cottage had stood, or the Rough Riders coaster, before some fool sailed it right off the rails, sixty feet into the air over Surf Avenue. Where a whole city had stood, back beyond the ruined pier--

Meet me tonight in Dreamland

Under the silvery moon

Soon, he knew, the soft yellow lights would be honed by the darkness into something sharper. They would become hard and clear: fierce little pearls of fire, obliterating everything else with their brightness.

None of them now on the pier would see it, not Yolanda or Ota Benga or Nanook the Esquimau. They would be working by then, in their booths and sideshows. They would not see the lights again until they were on their way home, in the early morning; would see them only as they shutdown, already faded to a fraudulent, rosy hue by the sun rising over the ocean.

Meet me tonight in Dreamland

Where love's sweet roses bloom

Come with the lovelight gleaming

In your dear eyes of blue

Meet me in Dreamland

Sweet dreamy Dreamland

There let my dreams come true

They liked to sit out on the ruined pier during the dinner hour, between the heavy action of the day and the night shows. They slumped on the rotted pilings, where once a hundred excursion boats a day had tied up, to smoke and eat, and spit and smoke and tell their stories: Ota Benga, spindly and humpbacked, no real pygmy but a tubercular piano player from Kansas City, exotic moniker lifted from an old carny sensation of the past--

In the City everything was passed down, even the names of the freaks and the gangsters--

--Nanook the Massive, Nanook the Implacable, slit-eyed hero of the north--who was in fact a woman from some extinguished Plains tribe, signed on after her old man had tried to force her into whoring at the Tin Elephant hotel along Brighton Beach.

And then there was Yolanda. Immense frog eyes still staring up at him, curved beak of a nose, skin the color and texture of a well-used saddle--

"It's a love story," Trick told her. "It's a story about love, and jealousy, and betrayal. A story about a young man, the young woman who loved him, and a terrible villain--a story about death, and destruction, and fire. It is a story about thieves and cutthroats, and one man's vision, and the poor man's burden, and the rich man's condescension.

"It is a story about Kid Twist, the gangster, and Gyp the Blood, who was a killer, and Big Tim the politician, and poor Beansy Rosenthal, who couldn't keep his mouth shut. It is a story about Sadie the whore, and the brave Esther, and the mad Carlotta, and the last summer they all came together in the great park.

"It is a story about the Great Head Doctors from Vienna, and the rampages of beasts, and the wonders of the Modern Age. It is a story about a great city, and a little city, and a land of dreams. And always, above all, it is a story about fire."

"Ah," said Yolanda, satisfied now, leaning back and lighting up her pipe. "Ah. The usual."

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What People are saying about this

Iain Pears
Dreamland is a fascinating and compelling novel. The real star, perhaps, is the city itself, which Mr. Baker depicts in all its garish, squalid, exuberant, frightening magnificence through his intricate patchwork of bizarre and finely drawn characters.
Geoffrey C. Ward
Dreamland is an astonishment -- an irresistable epic made up of equal parts persuasive history and richly satisfying fantasy. With this remarkable novel, Kevin Baker establishes himself as a master of the form.

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