Between Two Rivers, the follow-up novel to The Jukebox Queen of Malta by Nicholas Rinaldi, is a quick read and terrific book. With rich characterization and realistic settings, it offers one of the very best literary portraits of modern Manhattan, which is the eponymous place “between two rivers.”
As the author of three published poetry collections, Rinaldi also has a lyrical gift with language. Coupled with his physically grounded and class-conscious observational style, his book extends well beyond the page. Leading us in the novel’s world of invention and realization, his prose allows him to become the painter of words to suggest light, color, and smell with a few well-chosen adjectives and well-placed facts.
Importantly, Rinaldi is equally capable of picking out the telling detail, often expanded through his favorite punctuation mark, the comma. The tendency starts from page one: “At Echo Terrace, the ground-floor lobby is a large open space with marble walls and a marble floor, and a vaulted ceiling high enough to accommodate the Jamaican thatch palm growing in a brass urn by a black leather couch.”
Simultaneous to giving us this rather economic introduction to the novel’s central environment, Rinaldi offers the flourish of a Jamaican palm in an urn by a couch. It’s the right combination of information and ornamentation, and it’s this same kind of artistic reportage that gives Between Two Rivers its writerly panache. As a result, there’s a great deal of pleasure to be had in settings alone. Yet there’s more to this book than clever use of language.
To characterize the book as concerned with story or plot, though, would be incorrect and overstating its thrust. Between Two Rivers consists of snapshots layered with unpleasant textures and happy coincidence. Characters struggle to find meaning and purpose, slowly weaving a vivid tapestry while enlivening the Manhattan street grid, from which there are memorable encounters, not all of them good. Seemingly fulfilling the maxim that no person is disconnected from any other, Rinaldi thus condenses dramatic action, as any writer must to conserve a reader’s attention, but he never hyperbolizes or exaggerates any one experience to the point of fantasy.
Perhaps this skill is the result of Rinaldi’s other career as a creative writing instructor, daily helping polish raw technique, no doubt including his own. Or perhaps this ability is simply discerned from the way he considers the world in widescreen with occasional rack focus for points of interest. Regardless, Rinaldi gives birth to, and develops, the many inhabitants of one Manhattan luxury apartment building while relying on the two terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center to structure his book.
In detailing these attacks, Rinaldi relies, not on his web of interconnected personalities, but on one character to provide the point-of-view for a fact-based version of events. Between Two Rivers thereby envisions these sequences very much like the feed of a steadicam operator in whose constant motion these disasters become legible. Once anchored to a surrogate point-of-view, the novel expands its fly-on-the-wall observations, eyeing passersby and patrolling unprepared moments to expose truth with a capital “T” and offers heart-stopping descriptions of the terrorist bombings, not to mention a page-turner with impact.
After re-experiencing the World Trade Center attacks, there can’t fail to be a sense of history in the making, for Rinaldi manages to convey the peculiar fascination of September 11th and its lasting effect on the American consciousness. This switch and sense of timeliness isn’t a surprise. Rather readers will enjoy the book, at first only intending only to discover what tragedy or ecstasy next befalls whichever character they find particularly sympathetic.
Gradually, though, Americanness, and the diversity implied by the term, is something of a theme, or at least an undercurrent, stitching one chapter to the next. Most obviously, there are many characters contributing to life at Echo Terrace. To keep track of these faces, names, ticks, and obsessions is a difficult undertaking but it’s the crowd from which these individuals emerge that manages to stay in memory, macro- to micro-, specific individuals remaining somehow illustrative of a complex national identity.
There’s a Romanian concierge named Farro Fescu, the novel’s nominal protagonist, who is deeply observant and proprietary towards the 15-story Echo Terrace condominium. Then there’s a cancer-ridden king of industry, Harry Falcon, many times divorced and heavily involved with the prostitute Maria Gracia Mono. Retired Luftwaffe pilot Karl Vogel, taking his daily constitutional, lives beneath Falcon and pines in obscurity with memories of the Second World War, the primary subject of several well-regarded books he’s written that have since gone out of vogue. Muhta Saad, an Iraqi spice merchant and habitual philanderer, has a son named Abdul who is studying to become a mortician, much to both his parents’ dismay, while also falling in love with the distinctly non-Moslem actress, Angela Crespi. Not incidentally, Angela has an aunt, Nora Abernooth, who lies in a coma and it’s through Nora that we’re introduced to my personal favorite, Theo Tattafruge, a plastic surgeon specializing in sex reassignment.
The list could go on, but what remains behind after digesting the novel’s bittersweet recognition of cataclysm is a tale of our time concerned with discovery, cultural clash, and growing older. In short, it’s a journey into metaphysical experience, concerned with how we might experience a changing reality that includes history and memory, conflict and harmony, and the potential beauty of kindness, no matter the assault of unfriendly times.