the opening of daniel fuch’s the brooklyn novels

Bookseller Photo 

From Summer in Williamsburg:





The thunderstorm broke very suddenly. With the first drops excited women’s voices were heard, windows opened and wash was hastily taken off the clotheslines. It was one of those hard, mad rains that come down as if with deliberate fury. Standing in the basement doorway, Mahler, the cobbler, smoked a cigarette and quietly contemplated the downpour, his face wrinkled into a grin at the sight of it. Philip Hayman, a young man on the first floor, looked down at him. “Just watch it rain,” he said. “Just watch it.” “Yeah,” said Mahler, “maybe God is mad about something.” They both smiled, and the cobbler went into the cellar, worrying a little over the joke on God.


Soon the yard became flooded. The sewer in the middle was clogged, and the water swirled and gurgled on top of it in white foam. A boy on the third floor, eating peaches, amusedhimself by throwing down the stones. He was Davey. He aimed carefully for the center of the swirl and was visibly pleased when he made a hit. In a minute he finished with the peaches, and, having no more stones to throw, leaned far out of the window and began to spit. Davey let thick drops of saliva slip from his lips, fascinated as he watched their mysterious descent into the pool. Now the rain came down so fast the drains on the roof were overfilled and were unable to convey all the water down the pipes at once. Here it shot out in a wide arc and splashed six stories below with a loud noise.


Then abruptly the storm lost its force; the downpour diminished to a drizzle and in a minute or two stopped altogether. The sun came out brightly.


The boy on the third floor regarded the sky incredulously. Mahler came running to the basement doorway for he liked the sun to sleep in, but on the other hand Philip, who had been relishing the wild fury of the rainstorm, regretted its passing.


Two or three women arched their necks to look at the sky and, satisfied, began to hang out wash again. All together for some reason there broke out a wild confusion of music from different windows—radios, player pianos, phonographs, and someone practicing on a saxophone. The man with the sax was playing “A Russian Lullaby” in a choppy way, and he played it interminably. At the same time a man and woman were heard arguing heatedly, their words too blurred to be distinguished. The Russian lullaby and the blurred argument filled the yard in fierce competition. Then the man’s voice rang out dominatingly. “Listen,” he shouted, “I don’t care if she is my sister-in-law, the next time I see her I’m going to spit straight into her eye!”




Suddenly a woman screamed. She screamed hard, fiercely. Startled, Philip Hayman immediately visualized the creased expression of her face, the jutting jaw, her teeth revealed. It was like an alarm. Women could be heard leaving their different flats and running through the tiled hallways, their wooden heels clicking sharply on the stone. As they ran they were accompanied by waves of hubbub that grew heavier and heavier as they began to meet. In another moment it was a roar of noise, question, answer, sigh, protestation, all mixed. One woman wept in a thin, wailing voice that pierced through the confusion and seemed to move upward like a thin line of smoke.


Philip rushed through the halls. On a landing he met the kid of the peach pits, scared, but nevertheless enjoying the excitement hugely.


“What’s up, Davey?”


“Nothing, nothing. I don’t know. I could only see a man sitting on the floor with a basketball bladder.”


Philip walked up. The knot of people were talking violently but in a steady stream. Mrs. Linck stood in a circle of women, big and sloppy, dressed in a rose wrapper, her face swimming in sweat as she passionately told them the story. Mahler, the cobbler, was there, scared and pale. Mrs. Miller, even, the old miser’s wife, hung on with her eyes to every word as it came from Mrs. Linck’s mouth. Everyone was there. Philip pushed his way politely through and saw the pulmotor squad working over the man on the floor who sat in his underwear, his legs crossed, resting comfortably on pillows. Nearby lay the basketball bladder. Its tongue had been connected to a rubber gas pipe and part of it had been cut away so that it might be worn as a mask. The windows had been open all the time, and there was little odor of gas.


Now the young doctor walked out with an authoritative air in spite of his wilted white uniform. As the women clustered about him anxiously, he shook his head with self-conscious impatience. No, no, the head said, the man can’t be helped. The men carried out the pulmotor apparatus and soon the crowd began to break. In pairs, in small groups, the women went back to their flats, to finish cleaning up, to make lunch. It was all over. They would talk about it for a few days and then it would be all over. Philip was pushed with the crowd down the steps. He returned to his flat, wondering over poor Meyer Sussman. Why had he done it? No matter how hard he tried, Philip could not understand it. He remembered the butcher’s red cheeks, his hearty laughter, the kind, joking manner he had had with customers as he cajoled them into waiting quietly for their turn. This man, Philip marveled, this man; and he waited for his friend, Old Miller, to explain the riddle. Miller knew everything.


The yard became quiet again. Three little girls came back and resumed their game of potsy, kicking a thick slob of folded banana skin into the different boxes. A window above opened, and a housewife, irritable and tired from the excitement, leaned far out and yelled to one of the girls playing. “Ella, Ella, what’ll you have for lunch, potatoes in milk, or rice?”


Ella, poised on one foot, thought it over carefully for a minute. “I think I’ll have potatoes,” she finally said.


“Then,” said her mother, “I’ll have you under the ground. I have only rice.” 



Meyer Sussman. Butcher to the fat housewives of Ripple Street waddling in loose kimonos,Meyer, hazy-eyed and tender-minded, gentle creature, sometimes called half-wit, perhaps because you contrasted so oddly with the bloodstains of your trade—why did you commit suicide? The autopsies of the housewives who were so fond of you were many and doubtless entirely wrong. They all began by saying that there was no reason for the suicide, and then they said it was your wife (impossible), money (you had enough, you never complained), insanity (in these things where does sanity end and insanity begin?), some disastrous secret (you lived the simplest, most even life). They all agreed that you were a fine, kindly man, and that it was a great pity, and that no one could ever have foreseen it. And this was all true.


When you meet God, Meyer Sussman, ask Him for me what made you squeeze the basketball bladder over your face. Little God in Heaven, sitting somewhere on a cloud, where are You?


daniel fuch’s the brooklyn novels


Daniel Fuchs’s trilogy, generally known in its omnibus form as The Brooklyn Novels, is comprised of Summer in Williamsburg, Homage to Blenholt, and Low Company. The first two novels are set mainly in and around the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, and chronicle the lives of the residents of Ripple Street; the third is set primarily in Neptune Beach, a seaside resort based on Brighton Beach and Coney Island.


Fuchs said of these novels that:


I used to go on long walks…take in the street sights at night. I freely used the sights and happenings in the three novels I wrote in my 20s: Summer in Williamsburg (1934), Homage to Blenholt (1936), and Low Company (1937). . . . I had ‘ideas’ for each of these books, but I soon tired of them, ideas being—for me, at any rate—unsatisfactory. I abandoned them . . . and devoted myself simply to the tenement: the life in the hallways, the commotion at the dumbwaiters, the assortment of characters in the building, their strivings and preoccupations, their troubles in the interplay of sexes. There was always a ferment, slums of no slums. The slums didn’t held them down.*


John Updike "Nobody else writes like Daniel Fuchs. I think of him as a natural—a poet who never had to strain after a poetic effect, a magician who made magic look almost too easy" (in Picked-Up Pieces, 1975).




Cover Image



From Summer in Williamsburg, the cityscape of Brooklyn:


Inland the tenements seemed abandoned and resembled for the day ruins of an early time. On summer weekdays and nights there were always hundreds of people thronging the streets and a constant flow of traffic. The emptiness now took on all a stranger significance by contrast. The grocery and butcher stores, closed by municipal law, had their green blinds drawn in front of their windows. A candy store here and there dozed in the mid-afternoon heat until the subways restored its customers. A pair of ice picks, hanging neglected over the iron railing of a tenement basement, indicated that here at other times Italian icemen did a noisy, open-air business. A few sleepy cats nosed deliberately in cans of garbage for scraps. An old woman shuffled down the street, and this completed the effect of lifelessness. (p 42)


The thoughts of Summer’s protagonist, 20-year-old Philip Hayman, an aspiring writer:


People did not live in dramatic situations. You might even isolate some event in their lives, extract its drama, and labor over it according to the rules, but in the end you would still have an incomplete portrait of them, it would be unfaithful to the whole. Even by isolating one episode there was exaggeration. The trouble with writers was that they knew too much. They made life too simple. They could say of the women at their carriages in the sunshine that they rose at ten, made their hurried breakfasts, tidied the rooms, went downstairs, bought candy and soda water, gossiped, went to the movies, and made delicatessen suppers for their husbands; a writer could say that and get away with it, but it wouldn’t be the whole thing. They could say that Cohen was a nut who tried to commit suicide because his head was growing bald, that Philip’s father was an old Chinaman who hadn’t been around, that Tessie was one of those girls who live by The New Yorker, they could say that Philip himself was an adolescent in the agonies of awakening inquiry, in the stage when one was occupied with gaudy abstractions like life, meaning, and the grave. They could say that and be sufficiently understood, but it wasn’t enough, it wasn’t the whole thing. What was all the excitement about? Philip asked himself. Literature was not reality. That was all there was to it. Writers who said otherwise were fakers, claiming more than they could do. A book was an artificial synthesis, the product of a man’s idea, to illustrate through his stress on characters and situations certain principles in which he was interested. Take Ripple Street, with Halper’s Stable, Yozowitz’s laundry, the Auburn SC, the life on the roofs, in the cellars and in lots, Davey and his gang, Miller, Mrs. Linck and her family, Cohen, his own father and mother, Mahler and Yente Maldick, together with the hundreds of other persons who lived in the tenements on the block; take Ripple Street with the merry-go-rounds in the sunshine, the Italians coming down the street with cheap ice-cream bricks in the small carts; take the whole of Ripple Street from morning to night and back again; take it and reproduce it faithfully and you would have a great formless mass of petty incident, the stale product of people who were concerned completely with the tremendous job of making a living so that tomorrow they would be able to make a living another day. Everything here was petty. Love was a hot joke, a soiled business in worn bedsheets, a sedative interlude in the omnipresent struggle of making a living. There was never time enough. Poetry and heroism did not exist, but the movies did. People in tenements lived in a circle without significance, one day the duplicate of the next until the end, which occurred without meaning but accidentally, cutting the procession short as pointlessly as Cohen’s life had been cut. People were born, grew tired and calloused, struggled and died. That was all, and no book was large enough to include the entire picture, to give the completely truthful impression, the exact feeling. (p 355-356)