Kevin Baker is quickly altering the landscape of American
historical fiction. His first novel, "Dreamland," burst into flames
three years ago - a hypnotic portrayal of Coney Island designed to
parallel the chaotic city of New York in 1911. His latest, "Paradise
Alley," stays on Manhattan, but it moves back to the Civil War,
rescuing from national amnesia the worst riot in US history.
Baker's descriptions of New York City could be more pungent only
with scratch 'n' sniff inserts. While "Dreamland" rose into the
lurid surrealism of the carnival, for this more grounded history,
Baker has only to follow the ghastly imagination of the rioters,
whose deeds he unearthed in contemporary newspaper accounts. Indeed,
this mammoth book threatens Cormac McCarthy's position as the
country's most violent novelist.
The enormous story burns for just three days, but it generates so
much heat that I expected the pages to disintegrate into ash as I
turned them. "Day One" opens on July 13, 1863. A new law has made
all able-bodied white men "eligible to be drafted by lot into Mr.
Lincoln's army, and shipped south to the war. There to be fed on
wormy hardtack, and salt pork, and butchered by incompetent generals
while their families try to subsist on begging and government
relief." For the thousands of poor Irishmen who've recently escaped
starvation, the suppression of Southern rebels seems a distant
What particularly galls them, though, is the law's provision that
any man can buy his way out of military service for $300. The
builders, craftsmen, butchers, street sweepers, gasmen,
longshoremen, clerks, and unemployed drunks - that is, virtually all
the able-bodied men who can't afford to buy substitutes - complain
that Lincoln has placed a price on their heads considerably lower
than the value of a single Southern slave.
With a million people packed into the tail end of Manhattan,
enduring sanitation closer to the first century than to our own,
"all that's needed is a match," the narrator notes. Already
suspicious in a Protestant country with strong anti-Catholic
prejudices, the men collecting nervously in bars and on street
corners have no reason to doubt the incendiary rumors from the
"I hear the abolitionists is puttin' all the good Irish men in
the front lines," one says.
"I hear they're bringin' a hundred thousand freed slaves to the
City, to take their jobs."
Those rumors aren't quelled by the fact that men who enlist
voluntarily are shipped out in chains to keep them from escaping and
returning to collect another signing bonus.
Everyone feels the tension in the air, the static electricity
ready to ignite social unrest in a city already charged by strikes
and uncontrolled inflation. City government flees, sensing the
impending explosion, leaving 2,300 policemen - almost all Irish - to
deal with whatever trouble may come from their fellow Irishmen.
Meanwhile, the city's 6,000 firemen, also Irish, serve on a
collection of viciously competitive teams. (Sometimes, men from five
or six different fire houses fight for hours over an available
hydrant while the building they've come to save burns to the