Imperial City, by Elmer Rice (1937)

imperialcityFull of cardboard characters, stereotypes, cariacatures, clichés, and hackneyed situations Elmer Rice’s 1937 novel, Imperial City is the most enjoyable read I’ve encountered in months. It’s got something for nearly everyone: a murder in a crowded night-club; a race riot; a raid on a high-class whore house; adultery (both hetero- and homosexual); a solo flight across the Atlantic that ends tragically; a protest by undergraduates at Columbia; an unsuccessful hold-up and high-speed getaway; a black-out that cripples Manhattan just as a sickly child is undergoing an emergency surgery. Something’s happening on nearly every page, and with close to 700 pages, that’s a lot of action.

I’ve had a copy of Imperial City for a few years but always shied away from reading it. I’m a sucker for city novels, particularly ones set in New York, but the few reviews of the book I’d been able to find were pretty lukewarm in their praise. The fact that its one reissue was as an abridged Avon paperback with a cheesy cover didn’t say much for its long-term literary merit, either.

But when I finally picked it up, I was 50 pages in before looking up again, and found myself reaching for it in every spare moment after that.

Not for Rice’s style, mind you. Probably the closest comparisons I could find to Imperial City would be The Bonfire of the Vanities or one of James Michener’s geographic doorstops like Hawaii or Centennial, and compared to Rice, Wolfe and Michener are poets. Here, for example, is how he handles a stressful period in his leading man’s romance:

These activities, together with his constant attendance at the trial, had left him almost no time for Judy. For more than a week he had hardly seen her, except for two or three brief visits to the hospital to which her father had again been removed. They talked listlessly and almost impersonally. Judy was preoccupied with her father’s illness, and Gay with his brother’s critical situation and his efforts to avert the strike. Emotionally neither was capable of sharing the other’s anxiety, and for no good reason, each was hurt by the other’s apparent lack of sympathy; so that an indefinable coolness sprang up between them and their parting had none of its accustomed warmth.

This is reporting, not writing.

And yet, it’s easy to look past such clunkiness and just keep stuffing oneself with pages like handfuls of potato chips or popcorn. Imperial City is the fictional equivalent of empty, addictive calories.

Although centered on the Colemans–one of the wealthiest families in Manhattan–the novel is a veritable solar system of characters, ranging from a couple dozen planets whose names gradually grow familiar to minor moons and satellites to asteroids that go screaming past in a few pages, never to appear again. I suspect Rice’s cast list would put Tolstoy’s biggest to shame, and given how superficial many of his characterizations are, even harder to keep straight. Names disappear for hundreds of pages only to pop up again with no re-introduction (“Arnold Rayford … is he the lawyer or the power company executive? Oh, no that’s Charles Albertin … or is it Livingston Ward?”). More than a few times, I just gave up and hoped to figure things out as I went along.

What redeems the book, however, is its tremendous momentum and enough telling details to make the stage sets convincing. An early highlight is a visit to Coney Island on a hot summer day:

Everyone’s jaws were moving; those who were not munching ice-cream cones and hot dogs or licking lolly-pops were industriously chewing gum. The air was thick with the smells of brine, pickles, sauerkraut, spiced sausage-meat, sizzling lard, and human exhalations. People shoved and trod on each other’s toes to reach the booths where stentorian vendors extolled the merits of pop-corn and pink spun sugar and Eskimo pies. Spectators stood five-deep behind the players of skee-ball, Japanese ping-pong, and coney races. There were long queues waiting to buy tickets for the Old Mill, the Love Ride, the jolting little electric auto-racers, the barrel in which the motor-cyclist risked death, the crèche where the pre-maturely born babies were displayed in incubators. In the swimming-pools of the large bathing establishments, the divers shouted and splashed.

coneyisland
The prose may be trite or awkward (particularly that last sentence), but despite Rice’s clumsiness with the brush, a lively and colorful picture emerges. As a portrait of Manhattan in the 1930s–one of the city’s most vibrant decades–Imperial City isn’t the most deftly painted, but it may be one of the richest and most fascinating. Great art it ain’t, but it is great entertainment. Summer is a long way off, but if you’re looking for a neglected beach book next year, remember this.

Best known as a playwright (“The Adding Machine” and “Street Scene”, among many others), Elmer Rice only published three novels. His first, A Voyage to Purilia (1930), was a satire of Hollywood set on a distant planet (Penguin reissued it in the 1950s as a science-fiction novel). His last, The Show Must Go On (1949), was epic-sized, like Imperial City, about the ups and downs of a young playwright’s career. His last book was an autobiography, Minority Report, published a few years before his death.


Imperial City, by Elmer Rice
New York City: Coward and McCann, 1937