By Thomas Kelly
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 390 pp., $25
Using Tammany Hall as a central theme in a contemporary novel could be considered either a creaky throwback to a time about which most of us have been long indifferent, or a trenchant reminder that the sure bets in life are not just death and taxes, but the lucrative temptations of political power.
''Empire Rising," a new novel by Thomas Kelly, could have landed squarely in the first category, if its appearance didn't so neatly coincide with a few recent events. And we're not talking about Kenneth Ackerman's biography of Boss Tweed recently published but, rather, the resignation (and one-year sentence) of Connecticut Governor John Rowland over corruption allegations, the ongoing federal investigation and indictments focused on Philadelphia's City Hall, and Boston's ongoing adventures of the Bulger brothers.
New York's Democratic and largely Irish-controlled Tammany Hall was the mother of all government machines, dispensing jobs and favors in exchange for votes. Its ethos was summed up by one of its sages, George W. Plunkitt, who famously said, ''I seen my opportunities and I took 'em" in his defense of honest versus dishonest graft.
Blending historical fact and fiction, Kelly's novel takes place in 1930 as the New York political machine begins to break down, and has as its structural frame the construction of the Empire State Building. The mayor, Jimmy Walker, oversees a system filled with thuggish fixers, paid-off judges, and brutal cops that makes today's mangling of the public trust seem like amateur night. Onto this scene comes Michael Briody, a recent Irish immigrant, who joins the crews constructing the Empire State Building at the record-breaking pace of a floor a week.
Briody loves the building, loves his work, loves ascending high above New York each day, and it's easy to see why, given the darker depths he travels during his nonworking hours. His extracurricular activities include gun-running on behalf of Irish republicans, doing favors for Bronx boss Tough Tommy Touhey, taking in the occasional boxing match, and consorting with the mistress of Walker's main Tammany Hall fixer, Johnny Farrell. As the building rises the mob and the machinations of the politically ambitious Franklin Delano Roosevelt conspire against the Irish machine.
Kelly is skilled at counterbalancing the tensions of the opposing forces into a compelling and readable story. His writing, though, lacks the grace of Colum McCann, who also wrote about the sweat equity of the immigrant class in ''This Side of Brightness." Kelly indulges in too many clichéd references, but he has created a compelling picture of city life. And he conveys the headiness of that dynamic moment in time, when a huge immigrant population was reinventing its life against the backdrop of Prohibition and the Depression, at the same time New York was in the process of inventing itself. Against this sweeping backdrop, Kelly manages to find small moments of insight. In one observation, a character recently arrived from Ireland reflects: ''It's funny, Michael. I think back home things were bad for the grown-ups but it was a great place to be a child. Here it seems the opposite."
Kelly has reimagined the world that was captured by photographer Lewis Hine in his images of the city in the 1930s, including his official documentation of the building of the Empire State Building. In fact, Hine himself makes an appearance in ''Empire Rising" as a character and with two of his breathtaking images that illustrate the book. But in Kelly's accounts of the political dirty dealing and casual violence and bloodshed of the time, he brings to mind another great photographer who produced indelible images of the city: Weegee.
One subject Weegee didn't often shoot was beautiful women, but a central figure in Kelly's novel is Grace Masterson, another Irish immigrant who is Farrell's mistress. Here is a full-blooded woman, with a brain and a complicated past. Grace lives on a boat on the East River and begins to do some of Farrell's dirty work, depositing kickback money in banks around town. She is also an artist, who first sees Briody when she joins Hine's team for a time. She and Briody are drawn to each other, and as their relationship becomes more central, the risks for both of them rise.
As the city's political machine begins to seize up, the two get caught in its gears, and the novel hurtles toward its end with their desperate race to extricate themselves. It's at this point in the story that Kelly reveals his own past as a writer of thrillers, although for the most part ''Empire Rising" is more informed by his background in construction and in city government.
Long before the twin towers of the World Trade Center became a symbol, first of dominance and then of destruction, the Empire State Building was a shining symbol of the modern metropolis. In Kelly's story, it also symbolizes the blood, violence, and greed on which many great cities have been built. That's something we should never forget.
Sandra Shea covers City Hall and politics for the editorial board of the Philadelphia Daily News. She is the author of the novel ''The Realm of Secondhand Souls."