I'm a dog person --- you might say a rabid dog person. Since I do not own a dog at the moment, I flirt with them shamelessly on the street (sometimes, but not always, they flirt back). It's hard to tell which are more endearing: the humans or the canines, in Cathleen Schine's new novel, THE NEW YORKERS (the title surely refers to both species). While lighthearted in tone and small of scale (it focuses on one city block and its inhabitants, with a swathe of Central Park thrown in), this book is neither shallow nor jokey. It is a comedy of manners, beautifully observed, with a huge and generous soul.
If you like a lot of plot, though, be warned: Nothing much happens in THE NEW YORKERS. It isn't heavy on message or momentum; it kind of meanders along (like life). The characters --- of all breeds --- give the story its energy and winsomeness. There is Jody, the music teacher whose companion is Beatrice, an aging white pit-bull mix she rescued from the ASPCA. There is Polly, the copy editor with the commanding voice and tentative spirit --- younger and prettier than Jody but not necessarily happier --- plus her puppy, Howdy; and her feckless brother, George. Love interest for the two women is provided by divorced dad Everett, and Simon, whose passion is fox-hunting. And a friendly anonymous narrator (Schine herself? It's left ambiguous) drops in a comment now and then as if from some window high above the street: "Any one of you reading this who has ever looked for an apartment will have to admit that apartment hunters are not very sensitive to those who came before them," she opines. Or: "There is a moment, even in New York City, when fruit on the trees begins to ripen. … Summer, tired and dusty and pale, gives way, and berries appear on bushes you don't know the names of."
That kind of ruminative voice is very 19th century. In fact, shades of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE's famous opening line (1813): "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." Schine, as other reviewers have observed, does resemble Jane Austen in the gentle-yet-spiky cleverness of her prose (though to my mind its small-town sensibility, compulsive matchmaking, and brainy, articulate heroines are more reminiscent of EMMA): "Polly hated jazz, but she had always known she was wrong to do so and was sure she could learn to appreciate it with a little effort." Or: "Everett knew [his daughter] didn't like his girlfriend Leslie. Why should she? Even he didn't like Leslie all that much. Why had he even mentioned Leslie, who had not, as a matter of fact, expressed sorrow at not being able to join them, perhaps because he had not invited her?" (Sorry to keep quoting. It's irresistible.)
I don't mean to suggest that THE NEW YORKERS is old-fashioned. It is thoroughly modern, at times not unlike a high-quality sitcom (something on cable, like "Tales of the City" or, for that matter, "Sex and the City"). There's this eccentric group of people and their dogs, falling in and out of love, having random encounters, hanging out at a "Seinfeld"-like restaurant, the Go Go Grill, owned by a gay guy who has five kids with his investment-banker partner and employs his ex-lovers as (largely incompetent, albeit handsome) waiters and bartenders. Very occasionally the book slips into TV mode, by which I mean a bit sleek and tidy and chirpy and pat: At one point, for example, Schine use the catchphrase "I'm only human" two or three times, seeming to invite a laugh track.
For the most part, however, she keeps things bracingly acerbic, emphasizing the real dog (as it were) rather than some airbrushed, barkless pup who poses for animal calendars. This unself-consciousness carries over to the raffish line drawings (by Leanne Shapton) that gambol through the book. They have an offhand, slightly gauche energy --- as if they'd been done quickly, in the park --- and never seem static or worked-over.
It helps that not everybody is adorable. Doris, the neighborhood anti-dog crusader, adds a bit of edge. A few bad things happen: A guy kills himself, abandoning a puppy (who is rescued). A tree almost falls on Jody and Beatrice. One of the dogs (I won't say which) eventually dies. Schine also picks breeds that aren't necessarily "nice": a rottweiler mix; a horribly behaved blend of chihuahua, pug, beagle and terrier; and, of course, Beatrice the pit bull, who wears a pink sweater in the snow. Beatrice is my favorite character: "She moved slowly, and though she was not playful, she was amiable and particularly loved strangers, throwing her great weight at them in a joyful greeting, unaware, presumably, that such a welcome might not always be, in fact, welcome."
My other favorite character is New York itself. This book is a valentine to the city, and in many wonderful scenes Schine captures the heady pleasure of living here. Jody, in Central Park with Beatrice after a snowstorm, feels "a surge of joy. In New York City, in the middle of Manhattan, she was alone. It didn't seem possible, but no matter which way she turned, she saw nothing but snow and ice and bare trees against the stark, black sky." When Simon visits that same park in summer, "he entered into the quiet, which always happened so suddenly, as if he had closed a door behind him." And let's give the narrator the last word: "As anyone who has experienced it knows, an October morning in New York is in itself a good enough reason to live in the city. … The air is cold and clean. The windows on every side are still dark. The streetlights are yellow. The natural world, so often obscured in the city, seems preeminent, powerful, and benign."
Cathleen Schine's little community may suffer the torments of heartbreak, subway breakdowns and looming terrorism, but they also --- like their dogs --- know how to take delight in what's right there in front of them. This is a buoyant book that left me feeling pleased and hopeful about the human condition. That's saying a lot.
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on January 12, 2011
The New Yorkers