An exceptionally well-written thriller comes to life in 'Visitation Street'
July 7, 2013 4:00 AM
Ivy Pochoda, author of "Visitation Street."
"Visitation Street" is Ivy Pochoda's second novel.
By Raina Lipsitz
Selected by the thriller writer Dennis Lehane for his eponymous imprint, Ivy Pochoda's second novel, "Visitation Street," is mostly what a good thriller should be: evocative, engrossing and creepy. Her characters are intriguingly flawed, and we are eager to learn their secrets. But the novel's best-drawn character is Red Hook, the Brooklyn neighborhood where the story takes place.
After a couple of pages, even Iowans who've never set foot in New York City will be transported. Each facet of the neighborhood is flamboyantly on display: its denizens -- homeless winos and scraping-by creative types; bartenders and barflies; drug dealers and users; teenagers from the projects and teenagers from the "nice" side of the street -- the pier and the water, "a brew of fuel and fish," mesmerizing in its filth; the housing projects, rotten at the edges but still ripe and bursting with life; the rival bodegas (one Lebanese-owned, one Puerto Rican) and the Greek diner; an ancient dive bar known as the Dockyard.
By Ivy Pochoda Dennis Lehane Books/Ecco ($25.99).
The novel's qualified success owes much to its strong sense of place. In a thriller-saturated market, the almost-too-vivid syrupy heat and vinegar garbage smells of its Red Hook summer are what make "Visitation Street" stand out.
Among the people at the story's center are Val and June, two teenage girls with a volatile friendship and a restless streak; Cree, a childhood friend of Val's sister; his cousin, Monique, a grade school friend of Val's and June's before all three learn about the social barriers that separate the girls who live in the projects from the ones who don't; Ren, a homeless hoodlum with rare artistic talent; and Fadi, the heartbreakingly civic-minded owner of a local convenience store.
One hot summer night, Val and June take a raft out into Buttermilk Channel -- and only Val returns. The desire to know what happened to June may be what leads you to pick this book up in the first place, but it's not why you won't be able to put it down. That I was more curious about who these characters would reveal themselves to be than I was about what they had or hadn't done is a testament to Ms. Pochoda's descriptive powers -- and an indication that plot is not her strong suit.
When the mystery at the book's center was finally revealed, it didn't take my breath away. In fact, I had largely stopped caring what had happened to June. But I enjoyed following such a psychologically complex cast of characters to that moment.
A Brooklyn native, Ms. Pochoda grew up in the now-gentrified Cobble Hill section, and lived in Red Hook for some time. While that life experience does inform the novel, a large part of the book's appeal lies in her physical descriptions, which are fresh and arresting: "Val's hair ... strikes her as lacking in enthusiasm." A drowned woman "looked as if the bay had sunk into her cheeks and was struggling to push back out." The Dockyard's bartender, Lil, "has a toxic red dye job and faded tattoos that look like bruises. Her gray eyes tighten as the night drags on. By last call they look like the heads of two screws," and sex with her is "unremarkable" and reminiscent of "the racetrack -- the clop of [her] cowboy boots, the slap of his hand on her ample flank, her exhausted whinnying when the thing was over." There is a rhythm and a musicality to Ms. Pochoda's sentences that is no less enchanting for being intentional.
"Visitation Street" falters as it barrels toward its anticlimactic finale. Ms. Pochoda is unable to sustain the crackling energy and sharp-edged prose that make the first 250 pages such a pleasure. The last 50 pages feel rushed, as if she grew weary of her own story and didn't quite know how to wrap it up. Some of the closing dialogue is as melodramatic as an after-school special, and much of what should be implied is explicitly stated: "With your father gone, you're frozen. Stuck in that courtyard because of what I did. You dream of getting out but you're too scared."
No matter: just as every summer must eventually draw to a close, every book must end. Some end as they began, with style and verve; others just sort of peter out. Although it belongs to the latter category, "Visitation Street" is still worth reading, especially on a hot summer night in a big, dirty city -- or perhaps down on a dock somewhere, provided you're not afraid of the water.