How does a determined young woman in WWII America find
herself in a 200-pound diving suit rummaging about under
the waters of the Brooklyn Naval Yard?
BY DONNA SEAMAN
By Jennifer Egan.
Oct. 2017. 448p. Scribner, $28
The sea in all its gleaming, brooding, swaying magnificence and mystery calls to the striving characters in Egan’s first historical novel, which exerts an equally magnetic pull on readers. In Depression-era New York City, Eddie Kerrigan, a
self-possessed, exceptionally observant man, takes his smart, circumspect 11-year-old
daughter Anna along on his rounds as a bagman for an Irish gangster. One cold day
they drive out to Manhattan Beach to meet with Dexter Styles, a dashing and ruthless
nightclub impresario who is impressed with Anna’s urge to walk barefoot in the frigid
sand and sea. “Well, what’s it feel like?” he asks. “It only hurts at first,” she said. “After
a while you can’t feel anything.” Her father is not pleased, but Dexter grins and says,
“Words to live by.” And with that, Egan, a deft and deep-reaching storyteller, establishes the secret triangle upon which this mesmerizing novel of suspense, daring, and
determination is so adroitly built.
Anna is devoted to her severely disabled sister, Lydia, as is her beautiful mother, a
Minnesota farm girl who made her way to New York and the Ziegfeld Follies. Eddie can barely look at his twisted, immobile youngest but commits himself to making
enough money to provide the care she needs, hence his dangerous association with
Styles, who walks a thin line between legitimate prestige and violent criminality via his
ties to the Syndicate. Eddie’s gamble backfires, and he disappears.
After a year of college, Anna joins the war effort, securing a job at the Brooklyn
Naval Yard inspecting parts for battleships. She has an epiphany while watching a man
don a massive diving suit: she is destined to be a diver. Her wildly unconventional
conviction carries her over every obstacle entrenched misogyny places in her way. Egan
revels in Anna’s moxie, training, underwater ship-repairing missions, and growing expertise, describing every object, action, and conversation with exhilarating specificity.
She knows precisely how those 200-pound diving suits worked, how they felt from the
inside, how divers were attached to their tenders above, how they were buffeted by the
currents as they worked. She animates the Naval Yard, the waves of ambition, rivalry,
gossip, and camaraderie among diverse men and women who never would have known
each other if war hadn’t tossed them together.
Egan was able to write so vividly and fluidly about this seminal time and place because
she has been researching the Naval Yard and its divers since 2004, six years before A Visit
from the Goon Squad appeared. In that innovative and episodic novel, which garnered the
Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Booklist’s Top of the List, Egan
considered the seismic impact of digital technology, as she did in The Keep (2006), in
which Gothic meets high-tech. Here, in this more traditionally told tale, she looks back to
the coalescence of an earlier technological revolution as the world went to war, American
industrialization was weaponized, men were sent to the front, and women filled new jobs.
Like Dennis Lehane, Egan has combined insightful historical fiction with emotionally
rich crime fiction to create a riveting and provocative investigation into the human condition. For all her keen attunement to social metamorphosis, what is most engrossing is
Egan’s charting of the psychological eddies and storms that shape her irresistibly stubborn,
risk-seeking characters. Eddie’s tough boyhood left him preferring “danger over sorrow any
day of the week.” Anna does what she believes she must, no matter the consequences. How
sharply Egan delineates the “byzantine calculus” inherent in underworld alliances, how
powerfully she evokes the glory and perils of nature and the utter nihilism of erotic desire.
There’s more. Egan also follows the fate of the archetypically motley crew of a merchant
marine ship in U-boat-infested waters, mustering the piercing detail and wrenching
drama found in Melville and Conrad. Ultimately, Egan’s propulsive, surprising, ravishing,
and revelatory saga, a covertly profound page-turner that will transport and transform
every reader, casts us all as divers in the deep, searching for answers, hope, and ascension.