Bingo Square: The Roaring 20’s
I loved Lindsay Faye’s The Gods of Gotham and already had a copy of this book – seemed like the perfect fit for the 20’s. From the topic matter and description, it was but I was incredibly disappointed with this novel, especially since it should have been my cup of tea.
The narrator is Alice “Nobody” James – as the novel begins, she is on a train, heading to Portland, Oregon with a gunshot wound, fleeing her former life in Harlem with the Mafia. Prohibition is in effect and Alice has been part of the life style – the flapper dresses, the jazz, the gin, the whole nine yards. The porter on her train, a black man named Max, recognizes that she is having some severe health issues she is hiding. Max and Alice bonded on her train trip – given her Harlem background, she is more tolerant than the average American, so he helps her out and takes her to a local hotel where she can get medical help when they arrive at the final destination. The Paragon is an all black hotel, and Portland has recently had an influx of the KKK, so her arrival is less than welcome among the other patrons.
The novel alternates between Alice’s background story, showinghow she became part of the Mafia and in deep enough to be shot and on the run, and her adjustment to life at the Paragon in 1921 Oregon. Tensions are already high, so throwing a white woman into the mix is a mixed blessing – sure, she can help diffuse the occasional situation but her presence also draws unwanted attention. Then, a six year old black boy who was practically a ward of the hotel goes missing, and Alice feels she must try to help unearth his ultimate fate, digging around and asking unwanted questions.
I liked the idea of a novel dealing with the KKK being set in Oregon – there are certain states that are now rather progressive and like to think they don’t have any issues states like the South do, but you can’t exactly call yourself a bastion of equality when you have an incredibly low rate of diversity, so it was nice to reckon with that side of history. Each chapter begins with an excerpt from a law or a news paper article from that time era, showing how racist that area was, and how they legally, if not in reality, outlawed black people from their state.
Combine that with the rise of the Mob? Should be fascinating. The problem is that I think this might have been one where a more straight forward historical fiction novel was better because while the boy’s disappearance was definitely an interesting point, the overall resolution of that particular mystery felt like a wasted opportunity, and was not satisfying. Plus, I was already on the fence about Alice and her approach to mystery solving was not very endearing at all.
In fact, I found Alice incredibly obnoxious in all the present day chapters. The chapters until she hits 15? I enjoyed those. After that, she became too much. I think Faye did a good job of incorporating 20’s slang, but rather than adding to the authenticity, they quickly became distracting – the phrase “old girl” came up way too often. I think this novel uses more 1920’s slang than The Great Gatsby, a book actually written at that time! The other issue is that the dialogue was too much – it was basically like reading a Gilmore Girls exchange with ’20s slang every time someone spoke – super exhausting. Alice talked about how one of her abilities is to make herself blend into situations, and to be able to create personas for what she needs – examples of this in the novel are innocent music teacher heading west, and bluestocking journalist interested in social justice depending on what the situation calls for … the thing is while Max and Blossom are drawn to her, and she to them, I don’t understand their quick friendships. I think it’s supposed to be a statement about similar souls finding and recognizing each other, but I didn’t really buy them. I think Max was an interesting character – someone that served as an officer during World War I only to return to a country where he is hated and can’t even use his own name at work, simply being called George like every other porter on a George Pullman train. I didn’t understand his attraction or interest in Alice at all, though.
I couldn’t connect to Alice because it felt like she was all flash and substance (which is part of the con woman act, and even her nickname of Nobody implies her ability to become part of the background so I get that’s actually part of the statement of the novel and the character’s needed growth). I can see where some might quite enjoy her quick wit, but to me, it just all felt too much and was off putting rather than appealing – she was just too impressed with herself, her voice and her turn of phrase. So overall, the novel had a great premise and concepts that just didn’t come together for me in the execution and a mystery that I found distracting and dissatisfying. But I know others really enjoyed this one so if the plot points sound appealing, this might very well work for other readers.