One is inclined to reflexively classify VISITATION STREET by Ivy Pochoda as a mystery, in no small part due to its publication under the “Dennis Lehane Books” imprint. Yes, there are certainly mystery elements in this deeply nuanced, well-crafted tale that has the disappearance of a teenage girl at its core. However, it is more of a character-driven work, somewhat reminiscent of Lawrence Block’s SMALL TOWN in its kaleidoscopic snapshot of a Brooklyn neighborhood and its residents.
VISITATION STREET is set entirely in the Red Hook area of Brooklyn (and yes, there is indeed a “Visitation Place” there), where the aftermath of an impromptu and ill-advised raft trip provides the catalyst for all that follows. Val and June are two 15-year-olds who have been friends for years but whose friendship and lives are experiencing an ennui that is driving a subtle wedge between them. On a fateful night, June very reluctantly agrees to go with Val to try out Val’s recently acquired raft in the nearby harbor. Following the excursion, the unconscious Val is discovered the next morning, having been washed up on shore. The raft and June are nowhere to be found.
"The ending of VISITATION STREET is startling, honest and somewhat unpredictable; I can imagine that it will be vigorously discussed in readers’ groups, both online and in person. I look forward to more from Pochoda as well as from Lehane’s imprint."
Jonathan, who discovers Val, is a music teacher at her school and a bit of an outcast. Less a has-been than a never-was, Jonathan is the son of a second-rate Broadway actress and studied at Juilliard for a period. Now he teaches music appreciation to unappreciative students and wiles away his nights playing piano accompaniment to a drag queen singer when he isn’t drinking his mind and heart out at the bar beneath his apartment, where he is the subject of ridicule, good-natured and otherwise.
While some suspicion regarding June’s disappearance initially falls upon Jonathan, the primary suspect is a young man named Cree, who was one of the last people to see both girls before their unfortunate excursion. Cree is no stranger to tragedy, having lost his father at an early age, a situation that has left his mother half mad and Cree without proper guidance as to how to remove himself from a dead-end existence in the neighborhood project where he resides.
Cree falls under the uneasy sway of the enigmatic Ren, who on the surface appears to be little more than a graffiti tagger but who knows much more about the Red Hook neighborhood and its inhabitants than would appear at first blush. Ren is gradually taken in by Fadi, the generous and affable proprietor of a Lebanese bodega that is struggling for success. Fadi, who publishes a giveaway neighborhood newsletter, is encouraged by the news that a nearby dock will become a landing area for a cruise line, but also uses his establishment as a clearing house for information concerning June’s disappearance. As the weeks and months drag on, rumors about June’s life and possible death circulate, until one resident of Red Hook takes it upon himself or herself to discover the truth.
Pochoda keeps things interesting from first page to last. Her character development is sharp and clear, so much so that the driving issue of the book --- what happened to June --- almost becomes a secondary consideration until the last fourth or so of the novel when a series of quietly explosive revelations rock the lives of many of the characters. The ending of VISITATION STREET is startling, honest and somewhat unpredictable; I can imagine that it will be vigorously discussed in readers’ groups, both online and in person. I look forward to more from Pochoda as well as from Lehane’s imprint.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on July 11, 2013