Even as a proud resident of one of the best cities on the globe, I must admit that I don’t know all the history, or even all the neighborhoods, belonging to New York. While I do my best to go out and see up-and-coming musicians, independent movies that get filmed here, and museum exhibits that showcase local artists, reading works by fellow New York residents, whether past or present, has been one of my favorite ways to deeper connect with my current digs.
Whether reading Edgar Allen Poe, Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger, Allen Ginsberg or Jack Kerouac, afterwards I knew I wanted to live in the place they wrote about in books. Since moving here I’ve come to terms with the possibility I may never be able to learn every aspect of this ever-changing city. But with each new read I come across that takes place here, written by someone from here, I become a little more hopeful.
Below I’ve compiled my top five picks for books that take place in New York by resident experts. To level the playing field and promote more recent, lesser-known works, I’ve excluded that Truman Capote novella about a call girl with impeccable style and a jewelry fetish.
1. Chinese Takeout by Arthur Nersesian (2003; $5.18 new in paperback on www.amazon.com)
The eclectic downtown art world comes with its own breed of glamour, but also grittiness, in this thrilling novel about aspiring painter Orloff Trenchant. Weaving drugs, romance and humor together in a witty tale of unrequited love set against the dreary landscape of the Lower East Side, this fearless, if not hapless, protagonist gives the reader a harrowing tour of living in New York on limited means on the brink of the 2000 presidential election. With original, flawed characters and a realistic lens into the competitive, selective inner circle of art collectors and creators, and the lengths some people go to in order to get discovered. Throw in a tragic muse and a dingy sublet, and you have a love story like no other.
2. The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America by Russell Shorto (2005; $10.88 new in paperback on www.amazon.com)
A great volume to bring with you on your next long plan ride, as it will take you more than a few hours to read, this true account of how the isle of Manhattan came to be provides a thorough overview of everything from the major players to the Dutch influence on the English language among residents here in the New World. With riveting tales of historical figures like Peter Stuyvesant and Henry Hudson, and hundreds of pages of well-written, informative prose, before picking up this book, you never knew how much you didn’t know about Dutch Manhattan the progression it has made over the years to its current state.
3. New York City’s Best Dive Bars: Drinking and Diving in the Five Boroughs by Wendy Mitchell (2002; $7.87 or cheaper new in paperback on www.amazon.com)
For first-time visitors and locals alike, this nifty little guide covers the best places to go for cheap libations and clever conversations. Small enough to fit into your hobo or messenger bag, bring this book along on your next night out for some great suggestions. Can’t-miss locations include the Johnson’s on the Lower East Side, the Subway Inn in midtown, and Rudy’s in Hell’s Kitchen. In between reviews Mitchell also offers her own superlative ratings, such as Best for Groups, Scariest Dives, Avoid on a Saturday Night, Best Jukeboxes and Best Dives to Find a Date (or a One-Night Stand). For only the bravest of you, I give you my personal recommendation of the Mars Bar on First Street and Second Avenue in the East Village.
4. Lush Life by Richard Price (2009; $10.20 new in paperback on www.amazon.com)
Another gritty Lower East Side tale by one of the greatest storytellers of our time, Lush Life chronicles the aftermath of a homicide in a tiny Manhattan neighborhood. With an omniscient narrator that jumps points of views from the cops at the precinct to the kids in the projects to the bartenders at the local trendy watering hole, each new chapter keeps you guessing about which character committed the murder, and if he or she will ever be caught. Written with Price’s signature edgy, urban style (his writing credits include the hit Clockers as well as select episodes of the HBO series The Wire), very few books have captured the energy – and apathy – of city life with as much insight and accuracy as this one.
5. Forever by Pete Hamill (2003; $10.19 new in paperback on www.amazon.com)
An elegant and fluid portrayal of New York like no other. Spanning two and a half centuries, the reader follows Cormac O’Connor from his clandestine Gaelic community in Protestant Ireland to the shores of Manhattan. With masterful, descriptive prose and punchy, poignant dialogue, Hamill covers all the major historical highlights, the Revolutionary War, printing presses and electricity coming into popular use, the great fire, and even 9/11. From drinking in bars to bathing in whorehouses, with a little sword fighting and horseback riding thrown in, Forever will end much too soon.