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The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2021

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JUL-AUG 2021 Issue
Books

Jonathan Lee’s The Great Mistake

Jonathan Lee
The Great Mistake
(Knopf, 2021)

The Great Mistake, a new novel by Jonathan Lee (High Dive), is about the life and death of Andrew Haswell Green. The narrator tells the story of “New York’s Famous Creator,” walking us through the steps that lead to his untimely death in 1903, while uncovering Andrew’s quiet and oftentimes lonely world. The story dates back to his youth when Andrew loses his mother at only 12 and is pushed out of his home by his father soon after. Around that time Andrew also encountered an almost kiss with a male friend, an emotional incident that would forever chase him.

The underlying subtext found throughout the book is profound, dealing with racism, sexual orientation, grief, and family trauma, all making it a heartfelt read that’s hard to put down. The language is engaging and controversial, like one friend talking to another. Bits of comedy and wit are spread throughout, especially in regards to the charming Bessie Davis, a Black prostitute who goes by many names (“Gentlemen Flapdoodles”) and has a “hold over white men.” These encounters with high profile men are indeed comical, simply by the way Bessie studies them: nose hair that needs to be plucked and thrusting reminiscent of a “little dog trying to impregnate a pine tree.” Even though Bessie may be aloof during these acts, the men always come back, including the lovesick Cornelius Williams, who is also Andrew’s murderer.

While Andrew’s rise to fame is inspiring—watching a young man who came from nothing advance to the creator of Central Park—it’s the smaller stories sprinkled throughout that are most influential. Andrew’s dream to create an open air space in New York City stemmed from his mother who was “locked away from freedom before she died, cooking and cleaning […] tolerating her husband’s outbursts of violence and the house’s atmosphere of ingratitude.” Creating something he was proud of originated not only by his mother but after his time in Trinidad while working on a sugar plantation and shamefully looked away from those who needed his help.

Restraint is a big theme that follows Andrew up until the very end, a constant reminder that plagued him: “Restraint. That is the key to a dignified life, Andrew. Restraint, restraint, restraint.” It was not explicitly said that his restraint dealt with his sexual preferences, but it seemed more than implied in descriptions of his ongoing friendship with Samuel Tilden, a prominent lawyer in his adulthood whose relationship teetered on more. A man who craved to create an open space for the city wanted nothing more than to keep his real self closed off to the world.

It’s hard not to find pleasure in witnessing the excitement of New York in this book, as our real New York now reopens after being shut down by the pandemic. The enthusiasm of Andrew—“a man obsessed with what New York could become”—is similar to what many of us feel today watching the city come back to life. The book takes us back to a time when Broadway was not yet the designated destination for musicals and plays, but for prostitutes and ill-behaved men, and then leads us to the city’s growth, with a history museum and a park that provides a natural escape for every New Yorker. As we live through these times now, we continue to watch New York re-shape, with curfews being lifted, entertainment venues reopening, and mini parks floating on the river.

There’s a lot to admire in The Great Mistake. Even though it circles around a tragedy that could have been avoided, it still offers hope for change and growth within a city, but more importantly, within humanity.


Contributor

Carissa Chesanek

Carissa Chesanek is a writer in New York City with an MFA from The New School. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature, PANK Magazine, The Rumpus, among others.

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The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2021

All Issues