Reading Guide

by Kevin Baker

This Wednesday, February 25, at 6 PM at Borders bookstore located at 100 Broadway in lower Manhattan, the Gotham Gazette Book Club will meet with Kevin Baker to discuss his novel Dreamland.

Below is some information that may be interesting to read before the meeting:
(You can also discuss the book in the meantime on our message board)

Information About Kevin Baker
Dreamland's New York


Dreamland is the first book in Kevin Baker's City Of Fire trilogy, a series of historical novels about New York City. Set in New York City in the early 1900s, it follows several first and second generation immigrants through their lives in the city. The characters in the novel include several actual historical figures -- Tammany Hall's Big Tim Sullivan, labor activist Clara Lemlich, and European psychoanalysts Carl Jung and Sigmond Freud. Two famous New York City blazes mark the novel's end - the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the burning of Coney Island amusement park Dreamland.

Paradise Alley, the second book in the trilogy focused on the Civil War Draft Riots. Gotham Gazette's Book Club discussed the book in June, 2003. Mr. Baker is currently working on the final book, Striver's Row, which will deal with African-Americans in Harlem during World War Two. It will be published in 2005.

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New York Times:
Excerpt of review by Thomas Mallon

Kevin Baker's jampacked novel of New York City circa 1910 rushes between lower Manhattan and Coney Island like a wild amusement-park ride on a continuous loop. The author shanghais all sorts of real-life Tammany pols, Bowery gangsters, factory girls and carnival attractions to join his own inventions inside a book that teems with violence, humor, information and hustle. "Dreamland" is historical fiction at its most entertaining and, in a number of spots, most high-handed.

"Dreamland" is terrific fun, though ultimately something less than the sum of its gaudy episodes. Its gangland and labor narratives tend to move in more predictable increments than the action out at Coney Island. Baker manages to throw everything together for a fiery dual climax -- Dreamland and the Triangle factory both burned in 1911 -- but the 500-page ride to it provides a lot of bumps along with the thrills.

Read the entire review

Washington Post
Excerpt of review by Carolyn See

I suppose this is a backhanded compliment, but 'Dreamland' is the first book I can think of -- outside of John Hersey's Hiroshima -- that gave me a rip-roaring, terrible, authentic nightmare. I found myself in a cold and dreadful wasteland, a landscape with nothing but a subway stop, a ratcheted Ferris wheel that scratched the stars, a field of ferocious rats, dozens of slouching boys I recognized as gangsters, and, sailing by on oily, fetid waves, an enormous ocean liner. I was wretchedly lost and alone.

Baker's vision is dark, mesmerizing, grotesque. Dreamland is no sentimental evocation of old New York. This is a place where gangsters poison peddlers' horses with oatmeal cookies laced with strychnine. Where out at Coney Island a lot of people spend a lot of time figuring out how to electrocute an elephant just for the 'fun' of it. Where, to make a living, young men must resort to crime and young girls must either slave their days away in sweatshops or live their short, sad lives as whores.

The characters here are no more than stick-figure stereotypes; the writing, more than a little careless. Almost every song that's sung has 'nonsensical' lyrics. Almost every dancing couple 'shuffles.' Almost every girl wears a 'shapeless' dress. But Baker's real subject is nightmare New York, that smoking and twitching electrocuted elephant, those waves of rats bent on killing a desperate terrier, that poisoned horse dropping in the street, that man reduced in less than a second to a paraplegic, all for the sake of a bet. This stuff is all true, and loathsome: It tells us a great deal about what it means, in the end, to be 'American.'

January Magazine:
Excerpt of review by J. Kingston Pierce

Kevin Baker has done as fine a job as any author I know of in capturing that park's garish excesses in print and superimposing upon them a comparably compelling and complex tale. In Dreamland, Coney Island revels in providing some escape for Gotham's worldly or plain weary masses, a spot nuzzled by ocean breezes, where competing wonders divert the eyes and the fragrances of sawdust and roasting corn fill the nose. Lest you become nostalgic, though, there's also a nightmarish aspect to Dreamland. Demonic dwarfs torment park-goers with cattle prods to entertain other passersby. Men paw hungrily at women's breasts on carousels. A new roller coaster careens off its track, killing passengers -- only to draw even larger crowds thereafter, folks attracted by the keen risk of death.

Read the entire review.

Richmond Review
Excerpt of review by Amanda Jeremin Harris

Baker's fabulous characterisation is important because it gives humanity to a quasi-historical account. I know historical fiction is a novelistic genre, not an academic one, but like Philip Roth before him (the comparison is inevitable) Baker has allowed the voices of impoverished nineteen-tens New York -- a sprawling mass of emigrants, union workers, corrupt politicians, crime bosses, prostitutes, etc. -- to vivify one very particular moment in time.

Read the entire review.

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Kevin Baker

Kevin Baker was born in New Jersey in 1958 and raised in Massachusetts. He began writing professionally at age 13 -- covering school sports for the Glouchester Daily Times. He graduated from Columbia University in 1980 with a degree in political science, and has earned a living as a writer since then. Dreamland is part of his City of Fire trilogy. The second book, Paradise Alley was published in 2002, and Baker is currently at work on the third, Striver's Row.

Baker has written another historical novel, Sometimes You See It Coming, about the life of baseball legend Ty Cobb. He was also the chief historical writer for Harold Evan's celebrated book The American Century. In addition to writing books, Baker has worked writing position papers for the Public Securities Association, and spent an 11-month stint working in the Tweed Courthouse during the Koch administration, answering letters that constituents had written to the mayor.

Click here to see Kevin Baker's personal website, including information about his books, links to essays and columns he has written, and interviews with him.

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Dreamland's New York

New York in the early 1900s was defined by the enormous amount of European immigration, which changed the physical, social and political face of the city and the country. Dreamland focuses on two parts of the New York City at this time -- the Lower East Side and Coney Island. Here are several links about the real-life versions of the places that appear in the novel.

Dreamland Amusement Park
Coney Island History
Interactive Map Of Coney Island, 1906
Lower East Side Tenement Museum
Triangle Factory Fire
Gotham Gazette's online chat with David Von Drehle, author of Triangle: the Fire That Changed America.

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Posted 2/23/2004