"Ellington Boulevard: A Novel in A-Flat"
(Reviewed by Poornima Apte APR 19, 2008)
One of the many characters in Adam Langer's entertaining new novel Ellington Boulevard is an ex-magazine editor, Elizabeth Fogelson, who also writes excoriating book reviews. Her tried and tested technique at book reviewing is picking up any novel and checking out paragraph 3 on page 67. If this one para passes the test, she might just read the whole thing or else decide to chuck it altogether. Fogelson is just one of a wide assortment of characters we meet in Ellington Boulevard which is set in New York City and is supposed to be a musical about real estate. “That's where the real drama is,” says one of the playwrights, Jane Earhart.
The setting is one specific apartment—Apartment 2B in the Roberto Clemente Building on Ellington Boulevard, a neighborhood that is slowly getting gentrified. The building on 106th and Manhattan is now being labeled as part of the Upper, Upper West Side and as the book opens, Ike Morphy, a longtime resident of apartment 2B finds that his place is being sold. It's a time when real estate is in such high demand that choice euphemisms are always in use. “West 109th Street isn't “dicey,” it's “in transition.” Buyers here aren't “speculating,” they're “pioneering,” Langer writes. Ike, a clarinet player and one-time member for a jazz band called the Funkshuns, used to enjoy a leaseless arrangement with the building's owner who let Ike stay in exchange for basic maintenance services. Unfortunately when Ike leaves for a few months to tend to his ailing mother in his native Chicago, the owner dies and the son Mark Masler is not so generous. Ike has to leave.
What follows is a tale that intertwines the lives of many characters—the buyer, Rebecca Sugarman, her husband, Darrell Schiff; his lover Jane Earhart; the broker Josh Dybnick; the seller Mark Masler and even Ike's dog, Herbie.
Rebecca has just been hired to be a member of the editing staff at American Standard—a magazine that is slowly draining away but depending on one cost-cutting editor to turn its fortunes around. Husband Darrell is an ABD (all but dissertation) doctoral student at Columbia—a place he got into on the sole basis of parental connections. These days all he can do is obsessively Google himself and check out his ratings on RateYourTeachingAssistants.net.
Langer who sets his various characters in the city's most well-known professions: publishing; theater; academics and of course real estate, uses these backdrops to poke fun at the insanity of most of these professions. Even if some of his portrayals depend on an occasional cliché to make their point, Langer makes the reader care enough about all the characters that one doesn't mind much.
Langer whose previous work has been set in Chicago weaves a closely-knit story about all the assorted characters. They are all connected by the six degrees of separation principle and sometimes you can see him really straining to get every last thread connected and neatly explained. If anything, Ellington Boulevard is a bit too strained and over plotted down to its last detail. However, this is a small detraction from what is overall an enjoyable read.
Even if New York itself is not minutely described as its own living, breathing entity, enough is said about the city to also make this a very Manhattan book. “[Ike] loves the liberating feeling that this city doesn't seem to give a damn about him and never did, that he could succeed or fail, turn tail and flee or persevere, pick up his music right where he left off or leave his clarinet in the closet forever—every one of those possibilities would be a classic New York story, each as likely as the next because the city is the only one he knows that can accommodate any story he might choose to pursue,” Langer writes.
One question remains: Does Ellington Boulevard pass Liz Fogelson's test? What about page 67, para 3? As it turns out the publishers were wise enough to have just one para on that page. They needn't have bothered with the extra precaution. Had there actually been a para 3 on page 67, I am sure it would have been just fine—just as the rest of this fun and entertaining book.
- Amazon readers rating: from 11 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Crossing California 2004)
- The Washington Story (2005)
- Ellington Boulevard: A Novel in A-Flat (2008)
- My Father's Bonus March (2009)
- The Thieves of Manhattan (2010)
- The Salinger Contract (September 2013)
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- Official website for Adam Langer
- Wikipedia page for Adam Langer
- SFGate review of Crossing California
- MostlyFiction.com review of The Thieves of Manhattan
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About the Author:
Adam Langer was born in 1967 and grew up in Chicago's West Rogers Park neighborhood. He left Chicago in 1984 to attend Vassar College in New York and returned to Chicago in 1988. He workd as an editor, nonfiction author, playwright, theater director, even film producer. In 2000, he won a fellowship to Columbia University's National Arts Journalism Program. He stayed in New York City and served as senior editor on Book Magazine until the publication folded in 2003.
He now writes full-time, mostly fiction, but occasionally articles. He is also working on a nonfiction memoir. He and his wife and young daughter live in New York City on Duke Ellington Boulevard.