The Sea Beach Line: A Novel

The Sea Beach Line: A Novel

by Ben Nadler


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Set in post-Giuliani New York City, The Sea Beach Line melds mid-20th- century pulp fiction and traditional Jewish folklore as it updates the classic story of a young man trying to find his place in the world.

After being expelled from Oberlin for hallucinogenic drug use, Izzy Edel seeks out his estranged father—a Polish Jew turned Israeli soldier turned New York street vendor named Alojzy who is reported to be missing, possibly dead. To learn about Alojzy’s life and discover the truth behind his disappearance, Izzy takes over his father’s outdoor bookselling business and meets the hustlers, gangsters, and members of a religious sect who peopled his father’s world. He also falls in love.

As Izzy soon discovers, appearances can deceive; no one, not even his own father, is quite whom he seems to be. Vowing to prove himself equal to Alojzy’s legacy of fearlessness, Izzy plunges forward on a criminal enterprise that will bring him answers—at great personal cost.

Fans of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, Nathan Englander’s For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union will relish to Ben Nadler’s combined mystery, love story, and homage to text and custom.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781941493083
Publisher: Fig Tree Books LLC
Publication date: 10/13/2015
Pages: 385
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Ben Nadler is the author of the novel Harvitz, As to War (Iron Diesel Press) and several chapbooks, including Punk in NYC’s Lower East Side, 1981-1991 (Microcosm Publishing) and The Men Who Work Under the Ground (Keep This Bag Away From Children Press). A poetry and comic collaboration chapbook is forthcoming with the visual artist Alyssa Berg. Nadler earned a BA from Eugene Lang College of the New School and an MFA from the City College of New York/CUNY. He has taught at City College, Eugene Lang College, and The College of New Rochelle-School of New Resources in the South Bronx. A former Manhattan street vendor, he has also worked in bookstores across New York, Chicago, and the San Francisco Bay Area. He lives in Brooklyn.

Read an Excerpt

We went to Washington Square Park to have our picnic, because it’s where we knew to go. We sat in the far Northwest corner so none of the other booksellers would see us. Malachi the drug dealer noticed me, but he just nodded, and went about his business. We spread an army blanket I’d brought from the storage space, and laid out our bounty.

“So Rayna,” I said. “You were talking about your family’s house earlier. In Boro Park? I still don’t know much about you, or where you come from.”

“That’s true.” Her face clouded, and she didn’t say anything else for a long while. I had pushed too hard, as I had with Roman and Timur. I kept asking questions, when I needed to just wait for answers to come. It had been so nice spending time with Rayna, and I’d ruined it. We chewed our food in silence. Squirrels and pigeons came too close. They were not afraid of people, and they wanted a bite of our food.

“I’ll tell you a story,” Rayna said, carefully. “From my family’s neighborhood.”

“Yeah?” I asked, wanting to encourage her without pushing.

“There was a boy who lived by me,” said Rayna. “Who thought he was a pigeon.”

“Really?” I couldn’t tell if she was serious, or joking, or relating a local legend.

“Yes. He was the oldest son of a family who lived down the street from my family. The father ran a nice business selling hats. The Hat King, they called him. The family hoped that the son would grow up and take over the business, but then he somehow got it into his hatless head that he was a pigeon.” I sat, enthralled. I didn’t think Rayna was going to tell me anything, and now words were pouring forth. It was clear that she was repeating a story she had heard—perhaps even told—many times before. Still, I was happy that she was telling it to me.

“All day long he would hang out in the park with the other pigeons, naked, pecking around. There’s these stone tables in the park there? With chessboards for tabletops? Where old men play, sometimes?” I nodded to show I understood.

“There are some in this park too,” I said, pointing down to the park’s Southwest corner. There were men who came and played there every day. They weren’t a part of my scene—I didn’t come to the West side of the park very often—but they were part of the park life, just like the drug dealers, the street musicians, or us booksellers. Washington Square chess was not recreational. These chess hustlers played all takers, for two or three dollars a game. Al was a pretty good chess player. I wondered if he ever played those guys. He wouldn’t play them unless he knew he’d win.

“Yes, like that. So, he’d go around and around the bases of the tables, all day long. He would eat chips that children dropped on the ground. It was very embarrassing to his family. In Boro Park, everyone is always watching everyone else. Judging. His siblings were able to get him back inside at night, but only by shooing him in with a broom. He’d coo at his mother—who he’d always loved—and eat the challah she baked, so long as she ripped it into little pieces and tossed them under the table.

“The Hat King and his wife tried everything. They brought in the boy’s old friends from Yeshiva to visit, but he didn’t seem to recognize them. They brought in rabbis, gypsy hypnotists, doctors with theories. What do you call them? Analysts? But none of them could convince him. He wouldn’t respond but with a peck and a flapping of his wings. Arms.” Rayna paused to sip her wine. A park pigeon cocked his head, as if waiting for Rayna to resume her story.

“What could the family do? They kept on in as best a manner as they could. They built a nice coop for the boy to sleep in, and threw scraps from their nice meals on the ground. They had to get rid of the family cat, because who could bear to watch their son chased around the house by a little pussycat?” Rayna looked genuinely shamed at the thought of boy being tormented by a cat.

“Then, one day, a man came to the door. A stranger. He said that he just arrived in the neighborhood, but had already heard about the boy from the neighbors. He thought he could help. ‘Sure,’ said the Hat King, ‘Come on in, be my guest.’” The man appeared, just like that, and no one questioned it? But then, Rayna had appeared in my life in much the same way.

“So the man took off his clothes, got down on the floor, and started pecking away under the table. The son came up to him and said, ‘What in the world are you doing?’ And he said, ‘What do you mean what am I doing? I’m a pigeon, like you, anyone can see that. I’m pecking at crumbs, like I always do.’

“‘Well, listen pal, you don’t look like any pigeon I’ve ever seen.’

“‘Well, you don’t look like any pigeon I ever seen either. But if you say you are, you are. I guess we’re both of us just a couple of pigeons.’

“‘I guess we are.’ The two pigeons became intimate, sharing their coop at night, walking in circles together during the day.

“After a few days, though, the man appeared under the table with his clothes on. Pants, shirt, jacket. Even a hat. The Hat King’s son took special note of the hat, which was a very fine one.

“‘Say,’ said the son, ‘I’ve never seen a pigeon wearing human clothes. You are sure you’re a pigeon?’

“‘Coo!’ Said the man. ‘You know me, friend. Of course I’m a pigeon. Is there a rule that says a pigeon can’t wear clothes if he wants to? Especially such a fine hat as this one? Can’t we pigeons do anything we want? What kind of pigeon would be so insecure he would think that wearing clothes made him less of a pigeon?’ The son was skeptical, but the days grew colder, and he eventually pulled on some clothes himself. Why not? He could put on all the clothes he wanted, it wouldn’t change who he was.” I sat there, in Al’s sweater and baseball cap, and listened to Rayna’s story.

“Then, one morning, the man sat at the table and ate breakfast with the rest of the family. Again, the son confronted him, questioned his pigeon-ness. But again, the man argued back, saying, ‘Is there a rule a pigeon can’t sit at a table? Maybe it’s a more comfortable way for a pigeon to enjoy his meal. And maybe he wants to eat something more than crumbs.” The son badly wanted to eat at the table, but had convinced himself he couldn’t. So now he pulled himself up into a chair for the first time in over a year. With every new action, the man convinced the Hat King’s son with the same argument. ‘Is there a rule a pigeon can’t drink wine, if he likes the taste of it? And is there a rule a pigeon can’t converse with humans, if he has something to add to the conversation?’ And so on.”

“The son was cured?” I asked “He became who he was supposed to be?”

“No.” Rayna shook her head. “He was never ‘cured.’ Some people are so damaged they can never be healed. Most people are. He never stopped believing that he was a pigeon. But he did come to believe that he was a very clever pigeon, and that it was all right for a clever pigeon to run a very successful hat company, making money off the humans. And he acted like he was supposed to.”

“Was he happier?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I think… I think maybe he was happier in the park with the pigeons.” She smiled.

“I think so to,” I said. “What happened to the other man? That helped him?”

“I don’t know,” Rayna said. “He was just gone. Sometimes people come into your life. And sometimes people go away. You are grateful, but… you don’t hold too tight.” She seemed to be delivering a warning about our situation, but I wasn’t clear if she was telling herself or me not to hold on too tight. Was she saying she expected me to desert her after I’d grown tired of helping? Or was she warning me that she’d be gone one day, with no explanation? Or was it just a story, with no lesson?

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