My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A friend from my writing group (and the fastest reader I know) recommended this book to me. The back cover of The Ballad of West Tenth Street calls the novel an “urban fairy tale.” The story revolves around two Greenwich Village brownstones and their eccentric inhabitants. In one of the houses lives Sadie Hollander, the tipsy widow of a British rock star, and her adolescent children, Deen and Hamish. Her oldest child, Gretchen, lives away from home in a mental hospital. She was the only child who truly knew her father before he died of a heroin overdose.
In the brownstone next door resides a genteel Southerner referred to as “the Colonel.” He, like the fatherless Hollander children, is lonely and spends a lot of time lost in his own thoughts. He takes an interest in Deen and Hamish, inviting them to come over to play his grand piano, eat snacks prepared by his housekeeper, and wander around in his garden.
Contrasting with the world of the stately brownstones is the street world of Cap’n Meat, a homeless Vietnam veteran, and his cat, Titus. From his park bench, Cap’n Meat keeps an eye on Deen and Hamish, who are allowed to wander the streets of the Village at their whim.
When Sadie Hollander is called away to the UK to attend to an injured bandmate of her late husband, she makes hasty arrangements for Hamish to stay at the home of a family friend. Deen is left to stay with her bohemian piano teacher and his deranged wife. Aware that the children are unhappy with their temporary placements, the Colonel takes it upon himself to check in on them frequently. He, his housekeepers, and Cap’n Meat form an unlikely and eclectic pseudo-family for the Hollander children while their mother is away.
What I loved most about this book was the unique storytelling technique used by its author. Marjorie Kernan is a visual artist, which is apparent in the way she describes the Manhattan streets in unexpected detail, making the Hollanders’ neighborhood seem enchanted and home-like in some scenes and cold and menacing in others. Kernan also tells the story from varying perspectives. She breaks the usual rules about point of view, jumping from one character’s thoughts to another. One moment we may be privy to Deen’s or the Colonel’s inner musings. The next paragraph might be told from the perspective of a mouse living in the Hollanders’ floorboards. This “head hopping” could be confusing in the hands of a less skillful writer, but Kernan manages to pull it off. The result is that the novel boasts a rich, heartbreaking, and ultimately hopeful texture that it would not otherwise have.