31 Days of Stories 2011, Day 25: “Nights in the Gardens of Brooklyn” by Harvey Swados

May 25, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

From Nights in the Gardens of Brooklyn: The Collected Stories of Harvey Swados

Harvey was interested in good or almost good women and men more than most writers – and readers. By good people I don’t mean saints or angels, but people who, for all their complexity, want to do the right thing. Luckily he was unsentimental. He had too much integrity to allow for the soft lies of sentiment. At some point in the stories … the world is going to pick up his characters and drop them down. Their innocence – and ours – is going to take a beating.

– Grace Paley, from the introduction to the New York Review Books edition of Nights in the Gardens of Brooklyn

Paley is, as ever, an astute observer, and nails the thing that makes Swados’s story of men and women in postwar Brooklyn so melancholy: the inevitable moment when the scales drop from their eyes and they see the world as it is, not as they wish it could be. Disillusionment is the bedrock on which “Nights in the Gardens of Brooklyn” rests.

The essential moment of disillusionment occurs late in the story, when the narrator catches his best friend’s wife with another man at a party. The narrator has come to New York following the war – “the one that ended in 1945, the only one that will ever be ‘the war’ for people my age” – where he quickly reconnects with his “best friend and almost-brother” Barney Meltzer. The narrator, who works for the Census Bureau, spies a woman on the subway reading an Isaac Rosenfeld story in the Partisan Review (such a scenario immediately locates Swados’s story as an historical document for readers in the early 21st century). He and the woman, Pauline, soon move in together and spend most of their free time in the company of Barney and his girlfriend, Cordelia. They are occasionally joined by Dante Brunini, “a sharp young Italian actor with a game leg” who works with the narrator. It is Dante who eventually cuckolds Barney.

Before that happens, Swados infuses his story with nostalgia for a golden moment in the lives of his characters: the war has ended and they are able to enjoy youth and freedom in the bosom of New York City. The metropolis is mythologized in the early stages of the story; the opening sentence has the narrator saying, “There was a time when New York was everything to me: my mother, my mistress, my Mecca.” He describes his discharge from the army and his voyage to America in similarly wistful terms:

I headed for New York City from Europe like a bee or a pigeon or a youth who knew what he knew and wanted, hungrily, to find out what he could do with it. It was so inconceivable that there could be any other place but New York to find out that I distinctly remember wondering, strolling the bright and unblasted streets, why it was that all the other American cities weren’t depopulated now that their young people were free once again to get up and do as they pleased without governments or uniforms to stop them.

The quartet of characters attends concerts and street festivals, dinners at Joe’s Restaurant and drinks at the Russian Tea Room. New York is vibrant, youthful, and alive, and the narrator is oblivious to the melancholy that awaits him as he inevitably ages. It is significant that the story is told in retrospect, looking back on the events after they have unfolded. This structure allows the narrator to recognize the particular ways in which the hangover from his wartime experience coloured his perceptions, and the strain of naïveté that ran through him as a young man. Early in his stay in the Big Apple, a “suave importer of Parisian negligees” offers the narrator a job, which he turns down because it might involve travel to the Continent. “I had had my bellyful of Europe” during the war, the narrator says, only later looking back on the missed opportunity with a sense of regret: “it was only afterwards, years later, when Pauline and I began to dream of traveling abroad, that we bethought ourselves of the negligee importer, and began to wonder what it would have been like, living in Paris during those years.”

There are other signs that the New York of the narrator’s imaginings might in fact be chimerical. His job as an enumerator for the Census Bureau takes him to the home of a woman who may be Barney’s cousin; she lives in a “blasted and devastated neighborhood” that is clearly meant to invoke associations with Europe during the war. Earlier, Barney had expressed reservations about the lives the four young people were living in New York, asking the narrator, “Don’t you sometimes feel that it’s all too good to be true? That we haven’t earned this?” His question gains resonance when he loses his job with naval intelligence, in part because of his association with the narrator, who had left-wing affiliations in university. The carefree days following the war quickly begin to give way to the oppressive threat of Communism and the witch hunts of the McCarthy era. By the time Pauline announces to the narrator she is pregnant, their glittering Bohemian existence has started to appear tattered and worn:

We had eaten and turned off the lights, and by the uncertain flicker of the one candle that still guttered on our teetering bookcase, and the yellow ray that splayed out around the cracked dial of our portable radio, we could just discern each other’s features, and our surroundings – the secondhand and second-rate objects with which we had hopefully furnished our two small rooms. Outside the window, the night breeze rattled the dead leaves on the lonely tree that rose defiantly for two stories from the shabby garden in the courtyard below.

The parade of adjectives marching one after the other in the sentences above testify to the paltry, cut-rate existence that the narrator has come to recognize as he stares down his changing life circumstances, as his carefree youth passes into the responsibilities and compromises of adulthood. “But that’s why we were happy in New York for a while,” the narrator says to Barney in the aftermath of Cordelia’s betrayal. “Everything was of a piece – work, play …” Barney’s response is at once brutal and heartbreaking: “Life doesn’t work out that way.”

In the end, the narrator is forced to depart from the city he had idealized in his younger days. His epiphany involves a recognition of “what sin and sellout meant” and an understanding that he “could never be happy in a city where drink and food, and friendship itself (as impermanent as the buildings), became a part of the whole grinding success mechanism.” What was once, for him, paradise on earth, has become “just a place.” Still, it remains “an indelible part” of his youth, a place “embedded in the very core” of his being, “an internal capital, aflame with romance and infected with disillusion.”

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