GHOST TOWN is part of Bloomsbury's Writer in the City series, in which a writer provides a story that captures the essence of a certain city. In this volume, Patrick McGrath takes on Manhattan and gives us three stories set at different times in the city's history, all of which concern a death. The way we die holds a mirror to how we live and each story provides a vivid picture of the age and the city.
"The Year of the Gibbet" takes place during a cholera epidemic. While waiting to succumb to the disease, Edmund reflects on the death of his mother and the role he played in it as a young boy. After the Battle of Long Island, in which the American forces narrowly escaped certain defeat under the cover of a providential storm, Edmund's mother gets involved in a plot to blow up the British ships holding New York harbor. Edmund's inability to lie spontaneously when he and his mother are questioned by British officers dooms her and she is hung as a traitor. Poor Edmund can never forgive himself for his guilelessness, even as his own time runs out.
"Julius" brings us to the Gilded Age. Julius is a puzzling disappointment to his father, a successful businessman. The boy's artistic personality inspires his sisters to rescue him by sending him to art school. The impressionable Julius is immediately smitten by his first nude model, a connection wholly inappropriate for a young man of his standing, and Julius's father seeks to put an end to it. The model disappears and Julius, devastated, loses his sanity. He is convinced that the model, Annie, has fallen victim to a sordid plot involving his art teacher and his father. When he lashes out in his own act of violence, he is confined in an asylum for decades. Upon his return to the house where he grew up, the world has passed him by but the truth of his experiences reverberates in the family legend: it is wrong to deny love.
Although the least gothic in tone, readers may find that "Ground Zero" is the most affecting of the stories as it deals with 9/11 and shows our own age's ghost stories in the making. Danny Silver has been seeing the same psychiatrist for years. He has intimacy issues, so his doctor is immediately suspicious when he claims to have fallen in love with a prostitute he hired a few days after the planes hit the World Trade Center. The prostitute has issues of her own, not the least being her claim that she is being haunted by a former client, a man who left her bed on 9/11 and went directly to work on the 104th floor. Everyone in this triangle is wounded in some way but the psychiatrist's plight is the most heart-rending. She's too close to Danny and expresses her concern in a way that inevitably drives him further into his troubled relationship.
The stories in GHOST TOWN are marked by a shared sense of loss and distance. Readers familiar with Patrick McGrath's earlier works will recognize his interest in violence and madness, as well as his formidable talent.
Reviewed by Colleen Quinn on September 6, 2005
Ghost Town: Tales of Manhattan Then and Now