The Great Mistake: A novel

The Great Mistake: A novel

by Jonathan Lee

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Overview

*A Best Book of Summer: Entertainment Weekly, Oprah Quarterly, Vulture, Town & Country, Refinery29*

An exultant novel of New York City at the turn of the twentieth century, about one man's rise to fame and fortune, and his mysterious murder—“engrossing” (Wall Street Journal), “immersive” (The New Yorker), and “seriously entertaining” (The Sunday Times, London).

Andrew Haswell Green is dead, shot at the venerable age of eighty-three, when he thought life could hold no more surprises. The killing—on Park Avenue in broad daylight, on Friday the thirteenth—shook the city.

Born to a struggling farmer, Green was a self-made man without whom there would be no Central Park, no Metropolitan Museum of Art, no Museum of Natural History, no New York Public Library. But Green had a secret, a life locked within him that now, in the hour of his death, may finally break free.

A work of tremendous depth and piercing emotion, The Great Mistake is the story of a city transformed, a murder that made a private man infamous, and a portrait of a singular individual who found the world closed off to him—yet enlarged it.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525658498
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/15/2021
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 34,137
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

JONATHAN LEE is the author of three novels, most recently High Dive, which was a best book of the year in publications including The New York Times, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and San Francisco Chronicle. He lives in New York.

Read an Excerpt

1

STRANGERS' GATE

The last attempt on the life of Andrew Haswell Green took place on Park Avenue in 1903. News of his murder filled the front page of the New York Times—“Father of Greater New York” Shot in Front of His Home. The motive was offstage, unaccounted for. Speculation filled the Herald, the Tribune, the Sun. Some writers got excited by the victim’s fame or the five shots fired. Others stared straight-­faced at the date of his death: Friday, November thirteenth. Citizens prone to long-­necked dreams carried pocket pieces on unlucky days like these, rabbit’s feet and rusty screws, Pope Pius IX in a paperweight, the pit of a peach named Stump the World, items mute and immune to worry, charms to protect them from bedlam, but at the age of eighty-­three Andrew had no time for fetishes. The things he trusted, late in life, were grass and trees and weeds, buildings and bridges made of stone, and after his absurd ending had faded from the news a marble bench was erected in his name in Central Park. This small memorial can still be found overlooking the open greenery of Fort Fish. On Tuesday mornings a person with cleaning supplies arrives to remove last week’s bird shit with a brush.

On Andrew’s fateful final morning, as the Times would describe it, he woke early and spent a long time preparing to move. Then he descended sixteen stairs with care and sat down at his table of Massachusetts maple under an electric-­only chandelier. Park Avenue was waking beyond the window. Dust rose and fell behind passing carts. Wheels creaked as they carried Friday loads across the cobbles. Coffee made with thirty-­six beans was best—this was his conclusion after decades of private research—and he sipped steadily from his favorite cup, painted the yellow of elm leaves in fall, until Mrs. Bray came in with breakfast.

How did you sleep? she asked.

Like the dead, he said.

They shared the smile they always shared, then together lifted knives and forks. His housekeeper was a sprightly seventy-­nine-­year-­old, her once-­fiery Irish curls now resembling coiled metal. Jokes about his advancing years were usual between them, and she prided herself on being skilled in the art of foretelling misfortunes—had in fact told him several times in recent years that jealous gods were watching his rise to fame and might soon begin searching for a flaw. But on Friday the thirteenth, a few hours before she was to witness his murder, Mrs. Bray voiced no warnings over their omelets. As she would later explain to Acting Captain Daly of the East Thirty-­Fifth Street police station, an officer itching for an advancement to Actual, her parting words to her employer that morning were merely that his full white beard had become unruly of late, that a visit to the barber this week was essential, and that she expected him back at the house today by one thirty at the latest, preferably smelling of witch hazel and hair oil, for the recent trend in this city toward emancipation from lunch would not hold in a man of his age.

Hearing all this, Andrew smiled and nodded, then did the awkward dance of getting his greatcoat onto his aching body. He hated going to the barber. A friend of his had died last year of an exploded heart while listening to the scraping of a neighbor’s jowls. Didn’t sound like a good way to go.

He rinsed his cup out in the sink, then traveled to his office near City Hall, where he remained until one o’clock. Several tasks were accomplished in a neat four hours at his desk: making plans to honor Mary Lindley Murray with a plaque; responding to idiotic correspondence from politicians whose principal wish this week was that the Statue of Liberty, her complexion seasick, should be made brown as a penny again; and imagining a route for the new subway cars, large and copper-bottomed, vestibuled, to be carried on floats up the Harlem River, the kind of gleaming image that recedes to leave the rest of your day looking ordinary, ordinary, ordinary.

He walked out into the bustle of Broadway and took a moment to catch his breath. The Herald would describe the impending crime as occurring on one of those well-­cut November afternoons when the sun shines bright and the wind blows cold, when it is fall in the light and winter in the shade. The Sun would maintain that the skies were darkly overcast. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle would stand entirely alone in claiming it was raining.

In this unreliable weather Andrew rode the Fourth Avenue streetcar uptown, as would later be recorded in the police report, with a look of amused determination on his face, the sharp features that made his moods look worse than they were, his white beard flickering in the wind as he went. He loved the press of cold air against his face. The way it seemed to tighten the skin. Only the skyline upset him as he moved through the city. The showy mess of buildings of different heights which stood, he felt, in increasingly incoherent argument with one another.

He was on track to meet Mrs. Bray’s one thirty lunch curfew as he alighted at the Thirty-­Eighth Street stop at twenty minutes past the hour. Succeeded in stepping around a stinking puddle formed by the fishmonger’s discarded ice. A particular pleasure Fridays brought him was the prospect of freshness—the week ahead did not yet contain any mistakes!—but why did every halibut seller in this city seem to share the impression New Yorkers had no sense of smell? Andrew looked up. Could see Mr. Hepiner now on the steps of his shop. An amphibian figure forever rooted in his little rubber boots, clutching that fishy bucket as if it contained the nation.

Oh, hello! Hepiner said, waving.

But Andrew did not wave back. There are certain grudges that are every bit as irrational as they are uplifting. A person must protect them at all costs, especially in old age.

He was eager now to be at home, in silence. To eat lunch, in silence. To read his new book, The Literary Guillotine, a record of the Literary Emergency Court, presided over by Mark Twain, within which execution was duly done upon the most overrated authors of the day, in silence. He saw on the stretch of sidewalk ahead a destroyed newspaper page, accompanied yet again by a constellation of chestnut shells (who exactly was this chestnut tosser?) and he stooped down now—ah—to gather all these items up, then crushed them carefully into his leftmost coat pocket, the one he’d asked his tailor to line with easily cleanable material designed with this particular purpose in mind. Tidying the streets, the ritual of it, gave him comfort. But there was never less trash. Each day brought more.

Those who saw him pausing to pick up those chestnut shells on this final journey would soon be cast as witnesses. They would decide he looked tired, that his back was hurting, that his character of late could be glimpsed in his gait—awkward, listing, the right hand dropping low as the foot beneath it fell, an old man who always appeared to be trying to catch objects falling from his grasp. And he did feel some of their eyes upon him. Felt embarrassed to be recognized like this every day, but also grateful to be seen, for he feared of late that he was fading away, that President Roosevelt was taking longer and longer to reply to his letters. There had been talk last year of renaming a great bridge or building in his honor, but he was concerned he had burned such plans down by being curmudgeonly instead of ingratiating, and making comments to politicians which only he found funny. That unwise remark, for example, about Mayor Low’s mustache looking like it had crawled onto his top lip in the search for a warm place to die.

A few minutes before the confrontation that would kill him, he walked north along Park Avenue without the aid of the cane Mrs. Bray always tried to make him take, past the usual butcher selling crimson cuts of beef and the tailor in his window making pants to measure, and past the candy store and the adjoining dental practice and the shady red-­and-­white awning they shared, and crossed the street in a shadow cast by the Murray Hill Hotel, its Cape Ann granite and Philadelphia pressed brick, its Corinthian columns carved with festoons of foliage, and looked at his home, number 91, and wondered what horrors Mrs. Bray had cooked up. He only hoped it would not be Hepiner’s halibut again. She tortured him with this, her insistence on fish. She felt it was good for his knees and his eyes, for the thinning soles of his feet, for the creak in his joints in the morning—but what of a man’s morale? At the age of eighty-­three he had the self-­awareness necessary to be patient with other people, but not always the facility to disguise the effort.

He loved this city. He hated it. It was a cathedral of possibilities, it would never settle down, it might remember him or it might forget him, there was a sense of no control, and for some reason he hesitated now, thinking city thoughts or lunch thoughts or other thoughts entirely, standing with his left hand settled upon the little iron railing which ran along the front of his home, and because of this hesitation, and a thousand other factors, a raw sprawl of coincidences and missteps and mistakes, a measure of bad luck and a degree of design, he would soon be lying on the ground with his face to the sky, sprawled and embarrassed, twitching, well on his way to becoming, in the words of one cab driver across the street, dead as a tent-­peg. Or in the formulation of Mr. Anton the florist, a man who claimed to love nature despite what it had done to his face, dead as a herring. As dead as a sightless eye. As dead as a soulless sentence. As dead as a doornail, or a cliché, or a lucky rabbit’s foot, or the pit of a peach named Stump the World. As lifeless as all the newspapers that would bear his name in the morning.

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