Visitation Street

Contemplating Red Hook, Brooklyn, Ivy Pochoda sees “skeletons of forgotten buildings — the sugar refinery and the dry dock — surviving among the new concrete bunkers being passed off as luxury living.” She notices how, at a certain hour, “the water cups the skyline’s reflection…” She recognizes the kids on the benches in Coffey Park “…perching on the backrests like birds on a wire.” And in Visitation Street, Pochoda distills what she sees to bring this neighborhood to life before our eyes.
Pochoda’s characters, too, are on the lookout — for trouble, but mostly for escape. Visitation Street opens on a summer night when two fifteen-year-old soul mates, Val Marino and June Giatto, carry a pink rubber raft down to the water, just for fun, for attention. They hand-paddle out into the current that churns toward Manhattan. Val is soon found unconscious under Valentino Pier, but June is gone. Two young black men have been watching, separately, from the shore. One, Cree James, saves Val’s life and becomes part of it; the other, Renton Davis, witnesses everything and is determined to save Cree — from the cops who predictably finger him and from a dead-end fate. “All it takes is for the right guys to pay you mind,” Ren warns from experience. “Call your name across the courtyards…. You never wanted to belong?  You never wanted a crew?”

Eloquent and ubiquitous, Ren shadows Cree to repair an injury revealed in a late twist that is, perhaps, a little too neat. Then again, Pochoda’s Red Hook, however demarcated its zones, is a small and intimate place. Here many are shadowed: Cree and his mother, by Cree’s murdered father; Val, by the vanished June; Val’s schoolteacher, Jonathan, by his drowned mother. “Ghosts aren’t the dead,” Ren explains. “They’re those the dead left behind.” It’s a perilously trite observation (is that redemption blowing in off the East River?). But we accept it, as we accept Fadi, the saintly Lebanese bodega owner who tries to unite the neighborhood with his storefront newsletter, because we sense from the outset that Visitation Street, for all its compassion, will not slide into sentimentality. It is too shrewdly observed, too deftly constructed.

Pochoda expertly modulates the suspense and draws characters with such care and restraint that even a small-time dealer or a thuggish cop becomes a complex, shifting presence on the page. “There are threads dangling from Detective Coover’s green-and-blue-striped tie. His partner, Hughes, is younger and wears a navy suit that’s a little too sharp for the station. He leans against the window and crosses his arms as if he has somewhere better to be.”  

As June’s disappearance sets Val dangerously adrift, the narrative’s seductive rhythm conveys the ebb and flow of life in a crumbling, watery place. “The sun hasn’t begun its daily battle with the Houses — its struggle to overcome the bleak fortress of rooftops,” Fadi notices as he walks to work “…through the barren lots, underneath the exhaust-blackened highway….” Two promises tether the drama: The Queen Mary will come to Red Hook and June will be found. When the liner docks, however, “the massive hull and looming prow block all the beyond that comes at the end of the street, the light bouncing off the water and the distant promise of the skyscrapers.” And the missing girl sails on.