How do you read a novel? Yes, I know, first you open the cover. But once it's open, what exactly are you reading for? Do you devour the story, one plot point at a time? Or are you there to browse the novelist's skill like architecture, considering his or her prosaic prowess from a formal distance?
Broadway Baby, Chapel Hill poet Alan Shapiro's debut novel from Algonquin Books, satisfies both kinds of readers with a story about a protagonist herself trying to resolve the mundane and imaginary. Ultimately it's a story about which of one's fantasies make it over into one's actual life, and how those fantasies are compromised and transformed. It's also a page-turner.
Formally, Broadway Baby is situated between prose and poetry. The novel has more in common with epistolary novels or episodic narratives like Evan S. Connell's Mrs. Bridge than many of the brightest points in the constellation of poets' novels such as Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America, Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives or Nathaniel Mackey's From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate trilogy. But then these distinctions don't mean that much to Shapiro.
"For me, writing is just writing," Shapiro says. "I write my poems word by word and sentence by sentence. And that's how I wrote Broadway Baby. And, in a way, I kind of hedged my bets."
Broadway Baby is quick and episodic with sharp, cinematic details, sometimes approaching an impressionistic prose montage. You find the lyrical handiwork of an award-winning poet with 10 books to his name on most of Shapiro's pages. The mind's eye becomes saturated with sepia tones, penetrated briefly by flourishes of white gloves and red lampshades. Dividing the book into brief "scenes" rather than chapters, Shapiro highlights his heroine's realizations with the same light touch afforded to the facts of the plot as well.
"There are a lot of breaks between different little scenes within the chapters," says Shapiro, who teaches in UNC-Chapel Hill's English and comparative literature department.
"They used to be separate chapters, every single one. I really wrote the book as a kind of increment of small individual moments and scenes. And I did it that way so that in case I couldn't get the book published, I could mine it for poems. It was like writing a poem, only just on a much larger scale."
In Broadway Baby, we meet Miriam Bluestein during her childhood in 1920s Mattapan, a predominately Jewish Boston neighborhood. Raised by her curmudgeonly but endearing grandparents while her hardnosed divorcée mother runs a high-end dress shop, Miriam dreams of shooting through the radio wires to become Fanny Brice in the Ziegfeld Follies. She turns the city names into an aspirational mantra: "Mattapan, Manhattan, they were practically the same word. Only two letters made the difference. Only two letters turned the every day into the never before, the just here into the far away."
After her first visit to a New York theater to see Show Boat, Miriam adopts the character of Julie, the tragic mulatto singer of "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man." Sent to the rabbi for a talking-to, Miriam incorporates his Seventh Commandment-based judgment into her Julie persona, expanding the fictional bubble she walks around in.
But Miriam/ Julie and her Ziegfeld dreams don't bear fruit as, more of a fantasist than a go-getter, she heads down the husband-and-kids path rather than the red carpet to the theater. So her dream goes underground, releasing pressure in her domestic life through the choice of exotic wallpaper patterns and paper lanterns in the cul-de-sac home she makes with kindly husband Curly. But it finds its opportunity to surface again once her son Ethan is old enough to be shoved toward the stage.
Shapiro enjoys traveling down the new formal routes specific to the novel. Aspects of his life that haven't found their way into poems emerge in the characters and events of Broadway Baby.
"Miriam's very loosely based on my mother and her relationship with my brother. My mother was not a stage mom and she didn't push my brother the way Miriam pushes Ethan. But I wanted to write about a fundamentally good person with flaws who has difficulty connecting with other people."
The story flashes through the emotional tribulations of a stage mom, vicariously pushing and lashing with frustration at her family. Shapiro hangs moving, introspective passages on the line of the story like the paper lanterns Miriam simultaneously loves and resents. Tearing up after practicing "Over the Rainbow" with Ethan, she explains: "When I was a little girl, that's just what singing was for me. A kind of wishing." Ethan asks if the wish was granted and she responds: "Sort of. At least while I was singing."
Speaking of the character, Shapiro notes: "Out of the best intentions, self-deceptions and delusions, she's somebody who, out of her own deprivations of her childhood, imagines this better life through theater. And then sort of punishes everyone around her when they prevent that life from realizing itself. I think that's a human problem. And I guess my own family gave me a plot to hang that human problem on and think about it through those characters and those scenes."
Shapiro also uses the novel to follow a personal dream of his own. "Another reason why I was interested in writing a novel—I was interested in what it felt like to have readers. I just got off the phone with someone from the Boston Globe who was calling to do an interview. I've published a lot of books of poems and some of those books have done really well in the way that books of poems do, won awards and all that. No one ever called me to give an interview. The person said, 'Why did you write a novel?' and I said, 'To get calls from people like you.'"
Punctuated with a good-natured, self-deprecating laugh, it sounds a bit like something Miriam might say.