This Novel Revisits A Power Broker Who Walked Lightly and Dropped Big Money


This isn’t exactly police procedure, but one strand of the story follows Inspector McClusky’s attempt to solve the riddle of why Williams shot Green. That pot doesn’t boil, it boils. When the solution comes, it is clever enough, but not deep satisfaction. Mystery is often Lee’s excuse to widen his lens, involving not only ambitious McClusky but Bessie Davis, a woman who might somehow be involved. Bessie’s mother was Black and her father was Native American. As the owner of high-end brothels that accepted “some big men of the city” as clients, “born in misery”, he made his way to a substantial fortune. He is perhaps the most vivid character in the book.

Finally, the main purpose of this novel is not the grand re-creation of a historical figure, a life bursting at the seams. There are hardly any scenes that involve Green directly planning and executing his most enduring monuments. And it’s not exactly warming up in Lee’s hands; The success of the book allows us to experience it rather than to “see” it as a kind of historical hologram. As Lee wrote, Green was “a very special man, and perhaps there was something peculiar in his character as well, or something that could be described as a void – an indefinable and perhaps nonexistent quality.” The person walks away with a textured sense of this lack of tissue; The vision of someone who never acts confidently is how you can expect someone with the ultimate resume to behave. Green remains reminiscent of a nostalgic character in a William Maxwell novel throughout for this reader.

Lee captures Green’s brooding, melancholic nature over and over again, including a scene as a child where he considers drowning himself in grief after the death of his mother. “There would have been better years,” Lee writes. “It would take a long time to swim towards them. At first, he wasn’t sure he had the energy. The breakthrough was realizing that there would be days of bravery, of avoiding and diving into the water at all costs, the days he did and the days he didn’t.”

At the age of 21, Green boldly goes to Trinidad for a year to work as a supervisor on a sugar plantation. There, Lee writes, he is “losing the softer side of his youth.” The workers there were told he was “the new free”, but instead he found people “enslaved in everything but name.” He eventually builds a Sunday school, succeeds for a short time, and is not bummed by a rumor about his sexuality.

In the penultimate episode, Lee highlights the sad fate of his subject’s reputation: “There was once a statue made of Andrew Haswell Green, but it was boxed up and lost. A laboratory was built in his name on the Bronx campus of New York University, but it was outdated and demolished.”

Then he brings it back to life once again in a moving final scene. We see him next to Tilden walking around the construction site of the Brooklyn Bridge, where “the shadows cast by the calcium lights seem to add a supernatural depth to the subtle sound of drills and chains.” A cornerstone of the tone and method of the book, this short chapter finds Green caught between worlds and moods. “In a hundred years, can people imagine all those years of effort under their feet as they cross the great bridge above?” she is wondering. “Do they remember the dead?”

Lee’s novel ingeniously wonders if we will somehow be remembered for who we are, not what we do.


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