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.