A Weekend in New York, Benjamin Markovits, Faber & Faber, £14.99

Review by Alasdair McKillop

I’ve discovered a new way to measure the potency of a book: can it keep me awake during an early evening train journey. This is a reliable test and one not easily passed because the railway’s rhythm works on tiredness in a way that makes sleep hard to resist. Benjamin Markovits’s novel Playing Days was defective in the way many sport books are defective: there was too much sport. I dozed occasionally. His last novel, You Don’t Have to Live Like This, was the perfect specimen, everything came out as it should, and I was awake to see it. It won the James Tait Black award but that was, admittedly, unconnected to my experiments in the emerging field of literary science.

Markovits’s new book finds members of the Essinger family gathered in New York to support Paul, a middling tennis professional contemplating retirement after one more appearance, probably brief, at the US Open. Paul is the third of four children – two of each – and the Essingers are the sort of family that believes children using their parents’ real names is a gesture towards a modern maturity. He has a son and a partner called Dana but could hardly be described as the main character. This is an ensemble piece about a family with too many adults. Siblings who were once children together are now grown-ups apart, newly and invidiously divided by status as much as anything. The family is linked by old arguments as much as genetics and this causes suppressed resentments to pop out unexpectedly at odd angles. Dana recalls that Paul once said: “whatever position you took, on any subject, you were also taking somebody’s side against somebody else”. Family gatherings are not social occasions, he tells her.

“It is folly to believe”, argued Tom Wolfe, “that you can bring the psychology of an individual successfully to life without putting him very firmly in a social setting.” This applies equally to the family. New York, in this case, is more than just a setting it’s an effect – it weighs down on family tensions in ways that are unhelpful for the Essingers but instructive for the reader. Sweat runs down skyscrapers from blue to grey while implications and inferences go unexplained and unquestioned. No one is entirely sure what anyone else means when they say something. And they say a lot. This is a novel that lives in its vigorous, cross-cutting dialogue. Despite the noise, you can’t help but notice the author displaying his craftsmanship.

A good writer makes the reading easy and Markovits makes for a smooth, immersive ride. If he were forced into a high-noon shootout he would have in his holster an old-fashioned sentence capable of hitting the target at 20 paces on the fast-draw. Like a well-chosen suit and tie combination, his style inspires confidence without being flamboyant and he doesn’t diddle with format for reasons that would require an advanced degree in something like forensic metaphorology to understand. As with Bernard McLaverty, Markovits has a lively eye for the small, ingrained moments of everyday life and this gives his writing its authenticity. He writes characters who exist as something more than dull metal fragments in your peripheral vision; characters who are something more than a hay-fever-sneeze. Like a good politician working a crowd, his energies in this book are democratically dispersed so that every character seems to be momentarily alone in the glow of conscientious attention. A Weekend in New York isn’t the sort of book where the reader is treated like a criminal and told to get up against the wall formed by the inside of the main character’s head.

Markovits lets the Essingers float away in the end – none of the many threads are knotted, no grand resolutions take place – and it occurred to me that he might not be done with them. Might they take us through tragic final years of the American century? Only if grand themes are imposed on them more obviously. Regardless, this book allows Markovits to knock on the door of the heirs to the greats and say, with quiet insistence, “I think it’s time to let me in now”.

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