Metropolis

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On a freezing night in the middle of a New York winter, a young immigrant is suddenly awakened by a fire in P. T. Barnum’s stable, where he works and sleeps, and soon finds himself at the center of a citywide arson investigation. Determined to clear his name and realize the dreams that inspired his hazardous voyage to America, he will change his identity many times, find himself mixed up with one of the city’s toughest and most enterprising gangs, and fall in love with a smart, headstrong, and beautiful woman. ...
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Metropolis: A Novel

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Overview

On a freezing night in the middle of a New York winter, a young immigrant is suddenly awakened by a fire in P. T. Barnum’s stable, where he works and sleeps, and soon finds himself at the center of a citywide arson investigation. Determined to clear his name and realize the dreams that inspired his hazardous voyage to America, he will change his identity many times, find himself mixed up with one of the city’s toughest and most enterprising gangs, and fall in love with a smart, headstrong, and beautiful woman. Buffeted by the forces of fate, hate, luck, and passion, our hero struggles to build a life–and just to stay alive–on an epic journey that is at once unique and poignantly emblematic of the American experience.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
In the tradition of The Gangs of New York and Paradise Alley, Metropolis revisits 19th-century New York, fusing fact and fiction to capture the moment when a culture based on corruption and greed began to yield to one of hope and industry. Elizabeth Gaffney provides a keenly focused historical perspective the old-fashioned way -- by creating a boisterous tale of flesh-and-blood immigrants all yearning for the American Dream. Her characters long for success but also for love, a goal that seems unattainable amid the filth and violence on the streets.

Gaffney's narrative is built around an honest, pragmatic German immigrant with a penchant for being in the wrong place at the most inopportune of times. When he's set up for torching the building that houses P. T. Barnum's menagerie, he finds himself with few options but to join the ranks of a notorious Irish gang, the Whyos. Falling in love with his protector, a ruthless pickpocket named Beatrice, Gaffney's hero is clued in to the gang's elaborate schemes as well as their secret musical language.

As fraught with suspense as it is rich in period detail, Metropolis draws readers into a New York both older than the Brooklyn Bridge and more labyrinthine than the sewer system that serves the burgeoning metropolis. (Summer 2005 Selection)
From the Publisher
“Rewarding . . . vivid tableaus and high drama . . . immigrant dreams and desires on the scrappy streets of Five Points.”
–The New York Times

“Engaged with history, artfully structured, told with dashing wit . . . full of passions and perils, desire and deceit . . . Metropolis teems with imagined life, as a good page-turner should.”
–San Jose Mercury News

“Brawny, old-school storytelling . . . a novel as strong and heady as the brew [Gaffney’s] rakes and roustabouts swill by the pint.”
–Newsweek

“Metropolis is more than a literary page-turner; it is also a coming-of-age story for a young and strapping New York.”
–Vanity Fair

“Engrossing . . . fraught with suspense.”
–Elle

Janet Maslin
The pace and density of Metropolis are rewarding yet stubbornly unpredictable. The book's vivid tableaus (the sewermen's bathhouse, with rows of tubs and no time for lingering) and high drama (Whyo justice pitted against Whyo love) are offset by close study of how urban planning, construction projects and contagious illnesses actually work. All this moves circuitously but firmly toward a finale that validates all the sprawl and unexpectedness of what has come before.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Paris Review advisory editor Gaffney crafts a richly atmospheric debut in which a bewildered immigrant loses his heart to a tough Irish lass in 1860s New York. Introduced first as "the stableman," the young hero finally identified as Frank Harris fled his native Germany to start a new life. But he's quickly framed by a master criminal and arsonist, then kidnapped by Beatrice O'Gamhna and told he must join the notorious Whyo gang-or else. Frank's luck veers from terrible to wonderful and back again in this suspenseful novel, and the jobs he acquires-laying cobblestones, working in sewers, building the Brooklyn Bridge-allow Gaffney to describe the burgeoning activity of a city absorbing its immigrants into projects that increase the power of the metropolis. Her portrait of the real but poorly documented Whyo gang gives them a handsome, despicable leader, his seemingly benign but powerful mother and a secret means of communicating described in Asbury's The Gangs of New York. Two graduates of the Women's Medical College who offer abortions to poor women, a black Civil War veteran who befriends Frank, and a benevolent business man with Dickensian resonances add more period color. While it never attains the narrative urgency of Doctorow's evocations of 19th-century New York, the novel's well-researched historical background, enlivened by descriptions of the criminal underworld and the off-beat love story, should ensure wide interest. Agent, Leigh Feldman. (Mar. 8) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Gaffney's sprawling first novel drops readers smack in the middle of New York City circa 1868. Incidents from history-a fire at P.T. Barnum's American Museum and an explosion aboard a ferry-mingle with events conjured by the author's imagination as German immigrant Johannes gets mired in troubles seemingly beyond his control. The unfolding story showcases two groups, Irish Catholics and German Lutherans, and Gaffney's well-drawn characters seamlessly introduce themes ranging from the lure of gangs to the dangers facing those constructing the Brooklyn Bridge. Race and gender relations also figure prominently, and an understated feminist slant is threaded throughout Johannes's romance with an Irish girl. Though one wishes that the author had occasionally injected dates to clarify the passage of time, this remains an engaging and suspenseful work-and required reading for anyone interested in urban affairs or simply in need of a good, stick-to-the-ribs escape from today's sociopolitical realities. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/04.]-Eleanor J. Bader, Brooklyn, NY Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Dark criminous deeds abound in Paris Review editor Gaffney's colorful debut, a melodrama set in the late 1860s in New York City's notorious Five Points. The story's vivid actions exfoliate from the suspicious fire that ravages P.T. Barnum's American Museum, making German immigrant stableman Georg Geiermeir a hunted man. Briefly detained in the Tombs and then released, Geirmeir attracts the attention of Irish immigrant "hot-corn girl" and pickpocket Beatrice O'Gamhna, a member of the female branch of the Points' dangerous criminal gang, the Whyos. When the murdered body of a pregnant girl is discovered in the wreckage of the Barnum fire, Geirmeir finds both refuge and further peril among the Whyos (who rename him "Frank Harris"), having been recruited by their charismatic bisexual leader, "Dandy Johnny" Dolan, the figurehead behind whom looms the real criminal mastermind: black-hearted Mother Meg Dolan. Gaffney's busy plot-much lavish detail is drawn from Herbert Asbury's classic social study Gangs of New York (also the inspiration for Martin Scorsese's eponymous feature film)-encompasses the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and the heroic efforts of the pioneers of women's medicine to rescue impoverished girls from prostitution, disease, and premature death. Gaffney's first outing isn't as wonderful as it might have been: some of its action is quite redundant, the seams of her formidable research clearly show, and her Trollopian habit of inserting loquacious authorial commentary at odd moments often unsettles the tone. But the narrative line is strong, and the text is enlivened by such brilliantly imagined characters as the aforementioned Dolans, the conflicted Geirmeir (haunted bymemories of the family he left behind in Germany), and the Bill Sykes of this consciously Dickensian novel: freelance informer, murderer, and Geirmeir's implacable nemesis, the vile "Undertaker," Luther Undertoe. Luther alone is worth the price of admission, but there's much more to like in Gaffney's rip-roaring, agreeably ungainly, outrageously entertaining tale.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812970852
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/14/2006
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 496
  • Product dimensions: 5.22 (w) x 7.96 (h) x 1.09 (d)

Meet the Author

ELIZABETH GAFFNEY is an advisory editor of The Paris Review. In addition to teaching writing at New York University, she has translated from German The Arbogast Case (Thomas Hettche), The Pollen Room (Zoë Jenny), and Invisible Woman: Growing Up Black in Germany (Ika Hugel-Marshall). Her short fiction has appeared in North American Review, Colorado Review, Brooklyn Review, Mississippi Review, The Reading Room, and Epiphany. Metropolis is her first novel. To learn more about Elizabeth Gaffney, please visit her website at www.elizabethgaffney.net

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

1.

CASTLE GARDEN

"Hot corn, get your hot corn!”

Her voice cut through the clamor of Broadway but attracted no customers as she made her way south through the teeming crowd, bouncing her basket on her hip. When she reached the gates of the old fort known as Castle Garden, where the immigration center was, she flashed a smile at the guard, entered the premises and quickly sold her corn, several dozen ears, to the usual cast of hollow-cheeked immigrants. The stuff had been dried on the cob in the fall and had to be soaked two full days before boiling, but even so, it had tasted good to her, five years back, after the unrelenting porridge of the passage from Dublin. Here and there, ears that had been stripped clean lay discarded in the dirt, kicked up against the pillars, along with every other sort of garbage.

So she’d sold her corn, but it didn’t earn her much, just pennies a piece. She didn’t mind. Selling hot corn wasn’t why she’d come. Hot-corn girls were notorious for rounding out their incomes by stepping into corners and lifting their skirts upon request, but that wasn’t the sort of compromise Beatrice had chosen to make. She’d found another way to save up the money to bring her younger brother over, and to keep her dignity, too.

“That was fine, miss,” said a boy, politely swallowing a belch. “Have you got any more?”

He was just about her brother’s age. Her voice had sounded that Irish when she had first arrived. Now it was more flexible; she could show her brogue or not, depending on the situation. She let her voice lilt just enough to tell him he was at home there, too, but her answer was no, and she didn’t crack a smile. She had too much to do to linger with him.

She and her friend Fiona generally hit the disembarking passengers together. They were good, the two of them, could make more money as a pair than the rest of the girls in the gang put together, not least because they had fun doing it. They’d never been arrested, not even once. The jobs they pulled brought in plenty of money, but half the take went to their boss, just for starters, and then they split the rest between them. It was better than piecework, but it was taking too long for her to save up enough for Padric’s ticket. She worried about what would become of him if she didn’t send for him soon. And so she had been pleased to learn that morning that Fiona was needed to help on another job, leaving Beatrice free to go out solo. A small lie or two when the gang did their weekly accounts would mean she could keep four times as much as on a usual day, bringing Padric over that much faster. The only problem was, it was also far more perilous, since it wasn’t just the cops she had to worry about, but the boss as well. He would break her fingers if he ever discovered she’d kept his cut for herself.

She took a sharp breath and stashed her basket behind a vast pile of luggage. The day was raw, and she was freezing. To do what she was going to do, she needed her hands to be warm and nimble. Her fingers fluttered in the dank harbor air, then vanished into her dress, leaving the sleeves of her overcoat dangling empty. Her hands darted past cheap gabardine and worn shirting and came to nestle in the heat, the musk, the fine damp hairs of her armpits. Soon her fingers were starting to feel warm. But her arms were trussed, and all she could do, when a gust of wind worked a copper strand loose from its braid and whipped it in her face, was snort and shake her head. Through it all, she watched the steamship’s tenders as they were loaded up with trunks, then passengers.

The first-class passengers had long since gone through a genteel version of immigration and customs on shipboard; their tender landed them at a well-appointed West Side terminal, not Castle Garden. Steerage would be last off, as usual. But a ship this size carried people of every level of wealth and class, and her targets, the second-class passengers, would be the first to disembark here. As the tender bumped against the pilings, Beatrice extracted her hands from her armpits, stuck them nonchalantly back through her sleeves into her pockets and began to move. Her eye followed the parade of ribboned hats and horn-handled canes that parted the crowds in the frigid brick rotunda.

“As if there weren’t enough of these people already,” said a woman in a high velvet toque with a nervous thrust of her chin at the crowds of steerage passengers from earlier ships. Her husband winced and nodded. They’d just spent the season in London. Before the war, they had traveled first class and never had to set foot in Castle Garden, but most of her money was Southern—which was to say diminished since the War Between the States—and they’d been forced to make concessions.

Beatrice shed her hat, let down the braids that had been twisted under it and adjusted her posture and face in subtle ways that stripped her of nearly a decade in a handful of seconds: She was suddenly quite a little girl. The second-class couple emerged at the north gate, relieved, with sighs and murmurs of “Ah, New York, so good to be home!” At the curb, while the coachman raised their trunks to his roof rack and the gentleman made to hand his lady up onto the tufted leather carriage bench, Beatrice pressed forward. With her hand outstretched, she said, “Welcome to America, sir, miss! Have you anything extra to help me and my ailing mother?”

The couple looked away—he to the side, his wife to him. That was the trick, of course: to force them to look away.

Beatrice’s fingers were as fast as her eyes seemed innocent. Watches were her specialty, but this time she focused on the lady, who wore a pin on her lapel that reminded Beatrice of her mother’s long-gone gold-rimmed brooch. She wasn’t sure how good it was, how much it would bring, so she also grabbed the silk and suede wallet that protruded from the gentlewoman’s muff, which turned out to be bulging at the seams, though some of the currency was foreign. Then Beatrice was gone, and the couple was grateful. The horse left a loamy turd steaming on the pavement as it strained against its harness. The wheels ground forward. They were halfway home before they realized what they’d lost, at which point Beatrice was just pushing through the swinging doors of Marm Mandelbaum’s pawnshop, wondering what price she’d have to accept on the brooch in exchange for the old shrew’s discretion.

2.

INFERNO

Asleep in the dark, with his limbs tucked up against his belly for warmth, he had made himself small, just a fetal lump in the middle of his narrow pallet. His blankets were topped by his overcoat, and he’d tucked the whole pile tightly around himself to keep it from sliding off into the night. The floor of the tack room had been strewn with hay, the wall by the bed decorated with a couple of nails from which, on warmer nights, he might have hung his clothes. The horseshoe propped upright on a crossbeam above his head was a relic of a previous tenant’s superstitions. There was little in that room to suggest who he was, this stableman, except perhaps the worn cashmere and shredded silk lining of his coat—it had been a fine garment, once. And on the narrow shelf made by another beam, a bowie knife and a few whittled figurines: a bear, a gorilla and a strange hybrid creature, like a griffin, but of his own imagining, composed of assorted parts of the exotic creatures he cared for.

It was no ordinary stable where he worked. The horse stalls were inhabited not by hacks but by dancing white Arabians, and there were no cows at all, but an orangutan, a giraffe, a python, a tiger. He had never expected this land of dreams to be quite so dreamlike, so uncanny. The job he had landed through the Labor Exchange was certainly not what he’d imagined doing in America when he’d left home. What he wanted to do was build cathedrals or, barring such glory, churches, houses, even roads. That was his training and, what with the constant stream of immigration to New York, he’d been sure there would be work for a man with experience in the building trades. It hadn’t been so easy, though. So there he was at P. T. Barnum’s American Museum, shoveling dung and hay and whiling away his few bits of spare time carving figures from odd chunks of wood he found lying about.

His other possessions included a second shirt, some extra socks, a sack of apples and a guidebook to New York with a picture postcard tucked between its pages, one side showing an elegant bath hall at Baden-Baden, the other a stamp, a postmark from a decade before, a name and address, a message. His mother had sent her love, said the weather was fine, she was feeling much better and she would be home soon: the usual. Only the name above the address was notable—for its difference from the one by which the stableman was now known, on his documents and to his employers. He didn’t worry about anyone putting that together, though. Sometimes even he was incredulous at the great distance that lay between his present self and that boy who had been missed by his mother at Baden. How far was it from Germany to New York? He wasn’t exactly sure. It wasn’t a journey he’d ever meant to take. Things had happened to him, and he’d responded. Now he was here.

Was he happy? Not by a long shot. But not sad either. It was more that he was waiting for the next phase of his life to begin. In the meantime, his face and features were locked and shuttered like a shop at sundown, cinched tight like a burlap sack of onions with the drawstring knotted and wound around. When he was awake, he was cautiously optimistic—he’d landed on his feet more than once before. While he slept, he snored. And all around him in the stable, buzzing flies joined the noise, awakened from their quasihibernation by a warmth premature for the season and puzzlingly at odds with the weather outdoors.

That was the first alarm that something was amiss—a quiet one. The stableman was sleeping too deeply, dreaming too hard, to hear it. The clear screen of his cornea refracted the image of his optic nerve, and he saw backward into his own mind. The veins were like road maps leading to the time when he’d had a family, friends, a proper home. But that night the subject of the magic-lantern show flashing through his brain was nearer to hand: a sightseeing jaunt he’d taken on his last day off.

He’d been walking back from the Battery when he first saw the girl. She was an average young woman hawking corn from a basket. He’d just eaten. But suddenly he found he was hungry, even for one of those mushy lukewarm ears of corn. The stuff was sold on every street corner by hot-corn girls of every variety: black near Union Square and Irish at the Battery, German further north and east. Wherever he went in New York, there was always one of them singing the same song, but he’d never heard it sung so nonchalantly, so appealingly.

“Hot corn! Get your hot corn! Here’s your lily-white corn.”

And so a woman was conjured into being while he slept, conceived from his memory of seeing Beatrice on the street and a certain strain in the position of his limbs. But then the pleasure of the dream was stymied by the same frustration he’d felt that day at the crowded corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane. There she was, hawking her corn, but just when he’d nearly caught her, she slipped away from him into the crowd. In his sleep, in the tack room, which was filling now with smoke, he thrashed. Shouldn’t he get to taste her corn, if not to hold her, he wondered, at least in his dream? Something had ignited within him, just as the building he slept in so soundly was going up in fire. Oh well, there will be other hot-corn girls, he thought, never guessing, asleep or awake, that the skirts of his fate swished around that very hot-corn girl’s ankles.

She’d disappeared on him, but the heat she brought on remained. At least he was no longer cold, he thought, middream. He was standing before a roaring fire, a marble mantelpiece, a gleaming brass fender. He was back home in Germany, a boy in his father’s parlor. His mother was serving tea. But no, he’d gotten rid of his whole complicated past—or tried to. The dream flickered again.

He’d made it to the new world in steerage—no fine Meissen china anymore—and found himself a bed and a job. He was starting over. Barnum’s stable was a good enough place to wait for spring, when he could go out and look for building work. He thought of Raj, the Bengal tiger, who’d lain shivering in his fourth-story cage in the museum when last the stableman made his rounds. Of all the animals he cared for, Raj was the one he most identified with—his grace and frustration, his power and imprisonment, his obvious desire to burst forth and do something grander than slouch around Barnum’s. He could devour the world if he weren’t chained up in that cage. The stableman felt the same way. He was aware that, cold and poor as he was, the bottom was miles below. What he didn’t see, though, our stableman, was how close he lay to the edge of that abyss, how soon he was going to roll off into it.

That early March night had been frigid, so what then was this feeling that crept over him now—heat? Baking, burning heat. Could it be, he wondered, that he’d frozen to death? If so, he thought, Hell wasn’t quite what the faithful imagined. There was no settlement, no knowledge. Ignorance of Heaven and God persisted, but more cruelly—devoid now of any suspense or hope. Nor, yet, was it the nothingness that he’d expected.So what was going on? The smell of burning horsehair reached him next, and he glimpsed where he was: in a stable. Not Heaven, not Hell, not with the girl from his dream; but neither was this his father’s house in the city or his uncle’s farm. He began to identify the sounds that had roused him: animals’ screams, the trumpeting of an elephant, the banging of animal bodies into metal bars and latched stall doors. He was in the circus stable of Barnum’s Museum, on Broadway, in Manhattan. Yellow flames jetted up in one corner through the smoke that billowed around him. The splintery barn wall by his cot was hot against his cheek; dark wisps of smoke swirled into every orifice. Barnum’s was on fire.

From the Hardcover edition.

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First Chapter

Chapter 1

1.

CASTLE GARDEN


"Hot corn, get your hot corn!"

Her voice cut through the clamor of Broadway but attracted no customers as she made her way south through the teeming crowd, bouncing her basket on her hip. When she reached the gates of the old fort known as Castle Garden, where the immigration center was, she flashed a smile at the guard, entered the premises and quickly sold her corn, several dozen ears, to the usual cast of hollow-cheeked immigrants. The stuff had been dried on the cob in the fall and had to be soaked two full days before boiling, but even so, it had tasted good to her, five years back, after the unrelenting porridge of the passage from Dublin. Here and there, ears that had been stripped clean lay discarded in the dirt, kicked up against the pillars, along with every other sort of garbage.

So she'd sold her corn, but it didn't earn her much, just pennies a piece. She didn't mind. Selling hot corn wasn't why she'd come. Hot-corn girls were notorious for rounding out their incomes by stepping into corners and lifting their skirts upon request, but that wasn't the sort of compromise Beatrice had chosen to make. She'd found another way to save up the money to bring her younger brother over, and to keep her dignity, too.

"That was fine, miss," said a boy, politely swallowing a belch. "Have you got any more?"

He was just about her brother's age. Her voice had sounded that Irish when she had first arrived. Now it was more flexible; she could show her brogue or not, depending on the situation. She let her voice lilt just enough to tell him he was at home there, too, but her answer was no, and she didn't crack asmile. She had too much to do to linger with him.

She and her friend Fiona generally hit the disembarking passengers together. They were good, the two of them, could make more money as a pair than the rest of the girls in the gang put together, not least because they had fun doing it. They'd never been arrested, not even once. The jobs they pulled brought in plenty of money, but half the take went to their boss, just for starters, and then they split the rest between them. It was better than piecework, but it was taking too long for her to save up enough for Padric's ticket. She worried about what would become of him if she didn't send for him soon. And so she had been pleased to learn that morning that Fiona was needed to help on another job, leaving Beatrice free to go out solo. A small lie or two when the gang did their weekly accounts would mean she could keep four times as much as on a usual day, bringing Padric over that much faster. The only problem was, it was also far more perilous, since it wasn't just the cops she had to worry about, but the boss as well. He would break her fingers if he ever discovered she'd kept his cut for herself.

She took a sharp breath and stashed her basket behind a vast pile of luggage. The day was raw, and she was freezing. To do what she was going to do, she needed her hands to be warm and nimble. Her fingers fluttered in the dank harbor air, then vanished into her dress, leaving the sleeves of her overcoat dangling empty. Her hands darted past cheap gabardine and worn shirting and came to nestle in the heat, the musk, the fine damp hairs of her armpits. Soon her fingers were starting to feel warm. But her arms were trussed, and all she could do, when a gust of wind worked a copper strand loose from its braid and whipped it in her face, was snort and shake her head. Through it all, she watched the steamship's tenders as they were loaded up with trunks, then passengers.

The first-class passengers had long since gone through a genteel version of immigration and customs on shipboard; their tender landed them at a well-appointed West Side terminal, not Castle Garden. Steerage would be last off, as usual. But a ship this size carried people of every level of wealth and class, and her targets, the second-class passengers, would be the first to disembark here. As the tender bumped against the pilings, Beatrice extracted her hands from her armpits, stuck them nonchalantly back through her sleeves into her pockets and began to move. Her eye followed the parade of ribboned hats and horn-handled canes that parted the crowds in the frigid brick rotunda.

"As if there weren't enough of these people already," said a woman in a high velvet toque with a nervous thrust of her chin at the crowds of steerage passengers from earlier ships. Her husband winced and nodded. They'd just spent the season in London. Before the war, they had traveled first class and never had to set foot in Castle Garden, but most of her money was Southern—which was to say diminished since the War Between the States—and they'd been forced to make concessions.

Beatrice shed her hat, let down the braids that had been twisted under it and adjusted her posture and face in subtle ways that stripped her of nearly a decade in a handful of seconds: She was suddenly quite a little girl. The second-class couple emerged at the north gate, relieved, with sighs and murmurs of "Ah, New York, so good to be home!" At the curb, while the coachman raised their trunks to his roof rack and the gentleman made to hand his lady up onto the tufted leather carriage bench, Beatrice pressed forward. With her hand outstretched, she said, "Welcome to America, sir, miss! Have you anything extra to help me and my ailing mother?"

The couple looked away—he to the side, his wife to him. That was the trick, of course: to force them to look away.

Beatrice's fingers were as fast as her eyes seemed innocent. Watches were her specialty, but this time she focused on the lady, who wore a pin on her lapel that reminded Beatrice of her mother's long-gone gold-rimmed brooch. She wasn't sure how good it was, how much it would bring, so she also grabbed the silk and suede wallet that protruded from the gentlewoman's muff, which turned out to be bulging at the seams, though some of the currency was foreign. Then Beatrice was gone, and the couple was grateful. The horse left a loamy turd steaming on the pavement as it strained against its harness. The wheels ground forward. They were halfway home before they realized what they'd lost, at which point Beatrice was just pushing through the swinging doors of Marm Mandelbaum's pawnshop, wondering what price she'd have to accept on the brooch in exchange for the old shrew's discretion.



2.

INFERNO


Asleep in the dark, with his limbs tucked up against his belly for warmth, he had made himself small, just a fetal lump in the middle of his narrow pallet. His blankets were topped by his overcoat, and he'd tucked the whole pile tightly around himself to keep it from sliding off into the night. The floor of the tack room had been strewn with hay, the wall by the bed decorated with a couple of nails from which, on warmer nights, he might have hung his clothes. The horseshoe propped upright on a crossbeam above his head was a relic of a previous tenant's superstitions. There was little in that room to suggest who he was, this stableman, except perhaps the worn cashmere and shredded silk lining of his coat—it had been a fine garment, once. And on the narrow shelf made by another beam, a bowie knife and a few whittled figurines: a bear, a gorilla and a strange hybrid creature, like a griffin, but of his own imagining, composed of assorted parts of the exotic creatures he cared for.

It was no ordinary stable where he worked. The horse stalls were inhabited not by hacks but by dancing white Arabians, and there were no cows at all, but an orangutan, a giraffe, a python, a tiger. He had never expected this land of dreams to be quite so dreamlike, so uncanny. The job he had landed through the Labor Exchange was certainly not what he'd imagined doing in America when he'd left home. What he wanted to do was build cathedrals or, barring such glory, churches, houses, even roads. That was his training and, what with the constant stream of immigration to New York, he'd been sure there would be work for a man with experience in the building trades. It hadn't been so easy, though. So there he was at P. T. Barnum's American Museum, shoveling dung and hay and whiling away his few bits of spare time carving figures from odd chunks of wood he found lying about.

His other possessions included a second shirt, some extra socks, a sack of apples and a guidebook to New York with a picture postcard tucked between its pages, one side showing an elegant bath hall at Baden-Baden, the other a stamp, a postmark from a decade before, a name and address, a message. His mother had sent her love, said the weather was fine, she was feeling much better and she would be home soon: the usual. Only the name above the address was notable—for its difference from the one by which the stableman was now known, on his documents and to his employers. He didn't worry about anyone putting that together, though. Sometimes even he was incredulous at the great distance that lay between his present self and that boy who had been missed by his mother at Baden. How far was it from Germany to New York? He wasn't exactly sure. It wasn't a journey he'd ever meant to take. Things had happened to him, and he'd responded. Now he was here.

Was he happy? Not by a long shot. But not sad either. It was more that he was waiting for the next phase of his life to begin. In the meantime, his face and features were locked and shuttered like a shop at sundown, cinched tight like a burlap sack of onions with the drawstring knotted and wound around. When he was awake, he was cautiously optimistic—he'd landed on his feet more than once before. While he slept, he snored. And all around him in the stable, buzzing flies joined the noise, awakened from their quasihibernation by a warmth premature for the season and puzzlingly at odds with the weather outdoors.

That was the first alarm that something was amiss—a quiet one. The stableman was sleeping too deeply, dreaming too hard, to hear it. The clear screen of his cornea refracted the image of his optic nerve, and he saw backward into his own mind. The veins were like road maps leading to the time when he'd had a family, friends, a proper home. But that night the subject of the magic-lantern show flashing through his brain was nearer to hand: a sightseeing jaunt he'd taken on his last day off.

He'd been walking back from the Battery when he first saw the girl. She was an average young woman hawking corn from a basket. He'd just eaten. But suddenly he found he was hungry, even for one of those mushy lukewarm ears of corn. The stuff was sold on every street corner by hot-corn girls of every variety: black near Union Square and Irish at the Battery, German further north and east. Wherever he went in New York, there was always one of them singing the same song, but he'd never heard it sung so nonchalantly, so appealingly.

"Hot corn! Get your hot corn! Here's your lily-white corn."

And so a woman was conjured into being while he slept, conceived from his memory of seeing Beatrice on the street and a certain strain in the position of his limbs. But then the pleasure of the dream was stymied by the same frustration he'd felt that day at the crowded corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane. There she was, hawking her corn, but just when he'd nearly caught her, she slipped away from him into the crowd. In his sleep, in the tack room, which was filling now with smoke, he thrashed. Shouldn't he get to taste her corn, if not to hold her, he wondered, at least in his dream? Something had ignited within him, just as the building he slept in so soundly was going up in fire. Oh well, there will be other hot-corn girls, he thought, never guessing, asleep or awake, that the skirts of his fate swished around that very hot-corn girl's ankles.

She'd disappeared on him, but the heat she brought on remained. At least he was no longer cold, he thought, middream. He was standing before a roaring fire, a marble mantelpiece, a gleaming brass fender. He was back home in Germany, a boy in his father's parlor. His mother was serving tea. But no, he'd gotten rid of his whole complicated past—or tried to. The dream flickered again.

He'd made it to the new world in steerage—no fine Meissen china anymore—and found himself a bed and a job. He was starting over. Barnum's stable was a good enough place to wait for spring, when he could go out and look for building work. He thought of Raj, the Bengal tiger, who'd lain shivering in his fourth-story cage in the museum when last the stableman made his rounds. Of all the animals he cared for, Raj was the one he most identified with—his grace and frustration, his power and imprisonment, his obvious desire to burst forth and do something grander than slouch around Barnum's. He could devour the world if he weren't chained up in that cage. The stableman felt the same way. He was aware that, cold and poor as he was, the bottom was miles below. What he didn't see, though, our stableman, was how close he lay to the edge of that abyss, how soon he was going to roll off into it.

That early March night had been frigid, so what then was this feeling that crept over him now—heat? Baking, burning heat. Could it be, he wondered, that he'd frozen to death? If so, he thought, Hell wasn't quite what the faithful imagined. There was no settlement, no knowledge. Ignorance of Heaven and God persisted, but more cruelly—devoid now of any suspense or hope. Nor, yet, was it the nothingness that he'd expected.So what was going on? The smell of burning horsehair reached him next, and he glimpsed where he was: in a stable. Not Heaven, not Hell, not with the girl from his dream; but neither was this his father's house in the city or his uncle's farm. He began to identify the sounds that had roused him: animals' screams, the trumpeting of an elephant, the banging of animal bodies into metal bars and latched stall doors. He was in the circus stable of Barnum's Museum, on Broadway, in Manhattan. Yellow flames jetted up in one corner through the smoke that billowed around him. The splintery barn wall by his cot was hot against his cheek; dark wisps of smoke swirled into every orifice. Barnum's was on fire.
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Reading Group Guide

1. The hero of Metropolis remains nameless for the first part of the book;
later, he tries on different names, which he then rejects, each in turn. Why are names important, and why do you think Gaffney chose to complicate her main character’s identity in this way?

2. Beatrice O’Gamhna does not initially appear to be the nicest heroine when we first meet her; she is involved in pickpocketing and kidnapping.
How did you feel about her character, as you read? What is her appeal?

3. Although the main character is a man, the strongest characters in the book are arguably the women: Mother Dolan, Beanie, Fiona. The issues of women’s suffrage, violence against women and women in traditionally male professions such as medicine also come up in the story. What sort of point is Gaffney making? How much do you think society has changed in its attitudes toward women since the nineteenth century?

4. Harris is dogged by bad luck in the book, but he also has his share of very good luck, and there are any number of serendipitous or coincidental events that occur. What role does luck play in the story? Are characters held responsible for their actions?

5. Harris did not commit the particular crime of arson that he is suspected of, but he is not purely innocent either. Is his sense of guilt appropriate? Is he responsible for the things that happen after he is conscripted into the gang? Does old unresolved guilt carry over into his present?

6. Most of the characters have complicated moral situations: they are good people, and yet they are criminals; or they are criminals, but there is some explanation for how they fell into a life of crime. In certain cases, characters appear to be good, but they are in fact deeply corrupt. In what sort of moral universe do the characters of Metropolis live? Are any of the characters strictly good or evil?

7. There are two main villains, Dandy Johnny Dolan and Luther “the
Undertaker” Undertoe. Why do you think Gaffney wanted two villains in the story, and how do they differ?

8. The Whyo gang has a complicated secret language and uses a profitsharing scheme where funds are collected according to ability and distributed according to need. They treat women considerably better than do other gangs of criminals; at the same time, the gang is also extremely violent and corrupt. What did you think of the Whyos, in the end, and why? Is it possible to imagine a “good” gang?

9. Several of the characters in the story—Harris, Beatrice, John-Henry, and
Luther—lost their mothers early in their lives, and Johnny grew up without a father. How do these formative events affect them, and how does each character handle the difficulty of growing up with this loss?

10. There is a large cast of secondary characters in Metropolis, as well as many side stories and digressions from the main narrative, on topics such as street paving, sewer building, underwater caisson excavation, women’s health and bacteriology. Why did Gaffney choose to include all these characters and themes, and how do you think they contribute to the main story?

11. Do you think that the city of New York is more than just the setting for the novel? Could the city itself be seen as a character in Metropolis?

12. Occasionally, the narrator’s voice intrudes on the story to comment on the action. How does this change the experience of reading the story?
Would you say Metropolis feels like an old-fashioned novel, or are there aspects of it that mark the book as a product of the twenty-first century?

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 12, 2008

    Taken By Surprise....

    Before reading Amy Ephron's book A Cup Of Tea I would not have even picked this one up. Period books always intimidate me. But I read that very short novel by Amy Ephron and I was encouraged to pick up Metropolis by the similar periods the books take place. Metropolis was however completely different and captivated me from the first two pages which I read in store. And I just knew I had to keep reading. The story gets quite complicated and read a little slow but excitingly so. You CANNOT wait to know what is going to happen at any given moment during the story. It is suspenseful in a very edge of you seat way quite like watching a movie. I was completely heartbroken to have to finish reading this book. I loved reading it soo much and wanted so much to get to the end to know what would be the end. But once I got there I hated to put the book away wanting more of Gaffney's characters and her writing. Fabulous reading. And instantly took a spot on my top ten list displacing another. A must read for anyone interested in the history of immigrants or the inner workings of getting thru life however you possibly must. A vibrant and sometimes sad story that will keep you interested till the. Very. Last. Word.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 22, 2006

    Captivating story, once it sucks you in.

    Elizabeth Gaffney's Metropolis is a captivating story, once it manages to suck you in. The novel starts off slowly -- I found myself wondering at first if I would enjoy the book or if I would regret spending my time reading it once I had finished. It didn't take long -- the characters definitely grew on me as I got to know them through reading. In retrospect, the slow pace of the novel fits well with the relative pace of life during the story's time period, compared to that of today. Horse-drawn carriages contrasted with modern cars... letters taking months to travel overseas compared to the instant communication of e-mail. I was probably drawn to this novel by my frequent wondering about what it would have been like to have lived as a contemporary of my grandparents or great-grandparents, when technology was far less advanced. There are fascinating bits of science, physics, engineering and medicine thrown in with the usual human elements of interaction and emotion. Indeed, history is a great character in this novel as well. On the human side, the novel contains some very interesting studies of nature vs nurture, giving voice to a concept and allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions to some extent. Gaffney's highly descriptive style of writing easily transports you back through time to a period when certain technologies were in their infancy, while demonstrating that many things -- people, crime, racism, love, and luck -- may not have not been changed by time that much after all. Gaffney weaves an unusual story that slowly, carefully manages to wrap you around its little finger by the end.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 10, 2005

    Adequate, not exceptional

    Elizabeth Gaffney wrote well. She just didn't seem to relate the story well. This book did not live up to my expectations. I expected a period piece on New York after the Civil War. Unfortunately many of the details about life in that period were not provided. My expectation was for something similar to Pillars of the Earth or Forever, where you actually felt you were visiting the time. Not so here. The characters would visit a bath house, ride a ferry, travel the streets, live in a flophouse, etc., etc. but the lack of description could have placed them in virtually any period. And the story, while interesting, contained the largest set of coincidences I have read in years. This didn't take place in a town of 50 but in a City of hundreds of thousands, yet the same set of characters kept inadvertently meeting although they operated for much of the novel many miles apart. So, while the book kept my interest until the predictable end (probably a credit to Ms. Gaffney's writing style), it left me with a feeling of relief that it was over.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 5, 2005

    Historical Fiction at it's Best

    A engrossing read filled with a combination of fact and fantasy-

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 17, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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