by Kevin Baker
1999, HarperCollins, 519pp.  Hardcover

Dreamland presents us with a fictionalized account of the dawn of the American Century as experienced by those who have fled the twilight of the era of Europe.   It is a novel of the immigrant experience with a primary focus on the lives of Jews who had emigrated from Eastern Europe and a secondary focus on the Irish, but more importantly it is a novel of imagination, of specifically that imagination that it takes to remake oneself afresh in pursuit of one’s dreams:  the American imagination.  Like E.L. Doctrow’s Ragtime, but broader and deeper, it also includes and integrates figures and episodes from history within its narrative.

Dreamland writes an often overlooked chapter in American history, and it does so with a great deal of flair.  Peppered with slang and yiddishisms (for which a glossary is wisely and kindly provided) the novel features a cast that includes such characters as Gyp the Blood, Trick the Dwarf, the Mad Carlotta, Big Tim “Dry Dollar” Sullivan, Drs. Sigmund Freud & Carl Jung, and at the center of the whirlwind, Kid Twist and Esse Abramowitz.

Taking place almost entirely in New York City circa 1910, the novel is meticulously researched (author Kevin Baker is a professional historical researcher, and recently served as chief historical researcher for The American Century by Harold Evans) and obviously a labor of love.  Dreamland paints an epic mural bursting with unflinching details of the harsh realities of quotidian life in the New World.  It amply demonstrates how the new freedoms of this new world made for tragedy -- and comedy -- as well as opportunity.  It gives us the lives of pimps and prostitutes, gangsters and pols,  working girls and factory bosses, husbands and wives, sons and lovers, freaks and Freud.  But most importantly, it restores “Dreamland” and all the rest of Coney Island that has been lost, and re-imagines it in all its symbolic glory.

Upon completing the book a new understanding and appreciation of the fantasy provided by Coney Island emerges, one in which the “Dreamland” of Coney Island is revealed as a  precursor to the “Dream Factory” of Hollywood which was founded by these same Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe that populated New York at this time.  It was the complete disorientation, disequilibrium and discombobulation engendered by the utter harshness, strangeness and stress of the new world that gave rise to the need for the mass release provided by the Coney Island experience.  This in turn gave rise to the imaginative state of mind that we now know as Hollywood, which figured out how to bottle this experience and by doing so created the American Entertainment that defined the American Century.

And so, as the 21st Century presents itself and we wonder what brave new world awaits, we can take some solace in knowing that in some weird way it all started out on Coney Island...

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