Not for Brooklyn in the First Placeby Tom Deignan
Exile on Bridge Street
(Three Rooms Press, 2016)
Even in today’s glamorized Brooklyn, Bridge Street remains a generally non-descript concrete hodge-podge, paved over by a series of parks, literally in the shadow of downtown Brooklyn’s sprawling MetroTech Center and the Manhattan Bridge. But this waterfront thoroughfare is brought to grimy, vibrant life in Exile on Bridge Street, Eamon Loingsigh’s follow-up to his 2014 historical novel Light of the Diddicoy. Both novels are set a century ago, in a rough-and-tumble enclave once known as Irishtown. Narrated by a young Irish immigrant named Liam, who arrives in Brooklyn from County Clare in 1915, Exile on Bridge Street chronicles the labor and ethnic strife that engulfed the borough’s immigrants and their children. Striving for the kind of urban mythology and profane poetry we’ve seen from Gangs of New York to Goodfellas, Exile on Bridge Street is at its best when it reminds us that New York’s good old days weren’t always so good. As Loingsigh writes:
[T]he police and papers called us many things in our day during the Great War. Always had, of course. But it was as a gang we became known. The term originally came about because as long shore laborers of the busiest port in the world, we had pier gangs, hull gangs, hatch gangs, and many others. They all served a purpose in the loading and unloading of ships. But collectively we were known as ‘The White Hand,’ in opposition to the Italian longshoreman of South Brooklyn and their leaders, ‘The Black Hand’ that sought to take over the tribute money we’d always imposed in the north on waterfront businesses and immigrant laborers. But it was ours from the start, and although the Italians played hard, in those days, we played harder still.
On Loingsigh’s Bridge Street, violence can erupt at any time. One brawl early on compels Liam to ask profound questions which would certainly be familiar to many Brooklyn immigrants today.
“I decide right here and now that I am not for Brooklyn in the first place. Any of it,” writes Loingsigh, who has also published a collection of poetry, Love and Maladies. “And that I am to be back home, to my birth land where the earth is always under my feet instead of cement and brick.”
But don’t expect any sentimental longing for the verdant hills of Ireland, for Exile on Bridge Street opens in April of 1916, just as Dublin exploded in revolutionary violence. This leaves Liam to worry about his family, who may well face retribution for their role in what came to be known as the Easter Rising, which aimed to overthrow British rule in Ireland.
In the end, the world conjured by Loingsigh is not unlike our own: locally, poverty, disease, and violence make the streets a perilous place, while abroad war rages, and Americans don’t know what—if any—role they could or should play. There is even a looming fear of terrorism. At one point, Liam and his cronies are drinking in a saloon when a massive blast “shakes the bar bottles and the windows in their frames.” They run out to the street to see “an orange blaze beyond the Buttermilk Channel and Governor’s Island.” German agents targeted a munitions supply center on Black Tom Island in New York harbor. Seven people were killed, windows from Manhattan to Jersey City were shattered, and the Statue of Liberty itself was left “pockmarked and wounded,” as Loingsigh’s narrator observes. Many immigrants (for varying reasons) opposed U.S. entrance into the world war, and even openly supported the Germans, leading to charges that they were a treasonous element in our midst. (Sound familiar?) This is the world in which Liam must make his way, a task made less arduous (if not quite easy) by union kingpin Dinny Meehan, whose power is impressive, though also challenged on all sides by Brooklyn’s shifting ethnic makeup. In this sense, Exile on Bridge Street mines familiar material. Similarly, the hard-boiled tone is certainly fitting, with clipped sentences and heavy use of dialect to heighten the tension and realism. Still, this may strike some readers as excessive. (“Stand up to the Anglo Saxon,” one character growls, “and ye’ll be butchered in the onslaught like swine at the fair.”) And expect to see the word “fookin,” well, a lot of fookin’ times.
In the end, though, Loingsigh has an urgent story to tell. And he tells it well. This is a street-level history of how the other half has always lived, the kind of story rarely worried over in classrooms or political campaigns. Loingsigh’s great strength is his unsentimental take on the immigrant experience which—despite the rancor of today’s debate—often acquires a sepia tone when it is discussed in the past tense.
Exile on Bridge Street should be required reading for those who rail about how today’s immigrants “refuse to assimilate.” Liam worries about his family in Ireland and ponders returning “home.” His very identity—that he goes by various nicknames is a revealing insight—makes him a vivid symbol for immigrants across the centuries. As one character notes, “The past [is] so easy to forget in America, because it is known.”
And so, in a country populated almost entirely by the descendants of immigrants, many choose to believe myths about times when immigrants were somehow better. Many turn to an anti-immigrant presidential candidate whose mother and grandfather were immigrants, as were not one but two of his wives.
Exile on Bridge Street is the second entry in a planned Irishtown trilogy. For all of the tribal warfare, however, don’t discount Loingsigh’s poetic side. It is his ability to combine the two that make this such a fine read.
The weather on my skin amidst the great mammoth feet of bridge stanchions and pylons and buttresses and trains going in all directions with the wind on my face and life pulsing and screaming out every iron-shuttered window, poetry in my mind […] I know I’m alive. Know now that Brooklyn is my home. Accept it entirely.