Saturday, July 16, 2011

Ghost in the Closet

First time novelist Lorna Graham moved to Greenwich Village in 1988, but it wasn’t until 1994 that she realized her apartment was the one-time home of late postmodernist writer Donald Barthelme. From that connection Ms Graham began to imagine conversations with Barthelme about writers and literary movements of his day, and about some of the famous names connected to Greenwich Village of the 60s. The outcome of those imaginings is a just released novel called The Ghost of Greenwich Village.

The book would have flown right past me had an Amazon promo not announced its release. The hook was a blurb saying, ‘For Eve Weldon, moving to Greenwich Village is a dream come true. She’s following in the bohemian footsteps of her mother, who lived there during the early sixties among a lively community of artists and writers.’ The front cover of the book shows detail of a painting of Bleecker Street that could easily be a picture of my own early sixties Greenwich Village neighborhood. A book about that place and time, and about some of the artists and writers who were my neighbors sounded strongly like a book to read.

Had I read the cover blurbs more carefully I might have guessed that The Ghost of Greenwich Village is a story that could stack comfortably in the ‘Chick Lit’ section of the bookstore. And by categorizing the book that way I imply no slight or disrespect. Ms Graham’s book will probably enjoy the wide readership it deserves.

Soon after landing a choice Perry Street apartment for a less than exorbitant rent, Eve Weldon discovers that she is sharing the apartment with the ghost of a man who lived there until his death some years earlier. She can’t see him and he can’t see her, but it is a voice in her ear, and one that can read her thoughts as well. His name is Donald Bellows and in his day a known writer always just shy of great success. Grumpy, demanding, often insulting and just as often fascinating in his stories, Eve is not always happy to have this ghost as a roommate. Such are her feelings, but the talks with Donald, the writer and ghost are easily the best sections of the novel.

Eve lands a job writing for a Good Morning America type of news program called Smell the Coffee. She manages to screw it up and just barely escapes being fired on her first day. She is however quick to learn and in a couple of weeks settles into what most writers might find to be a thankless type of work, subject to the whims and tantrums of media stars. The TV writing is almost all trivial, revolving around lightweight Regis and Kelly-type subjects which Donald the ghost calls a temple of mediocrity. The job represents the other side of Eve’s New York life and though she does make one or two good friends, most of it is a nasty business of squabbles and frustration. In the end, the connection at least pays off in an unexpected way.

Much of the book is bogged down by Eve’s ‘search’ for the mother she never knew beyond childhood, a woman who had her own time in Greenwich Village, an adventure seen from Eve’s viewpoint as the pinnacle of romantic idealizations. Granted, the mother does provide an important piece to the puzzle, but Graham weakens her story by making the mother a fairy tale like figure, and also by having her main character mooning over her mother’s lost dreams. The outcome would be much more effective without the romantic delusions. At the heart of Graham’s book is a solid story without need of the schmaltzy memories, segments that are at best a distraction from the narrative line that begins and ends with Donald, the ghost-roommate.

One of the book’s more interesting characters is Matthias Klieg, legendary German fashion designer who comes into Eve’s life through research for Smell the Coffee. Klieg, it turns out is the third point of a 1960s triangle that ultimately answers all of Eve’s questions. Excellent job of creating a multi-layered and deeply sympathetic character with Klieg. When writing about Klieg and Donald, Graham is at her best and one wishes that some of the lesser and trivial characters had been eliminated, with focus kept on those with a direct line to the story’s resolution.

Unsurprisingly the writer is skillful in her depiction of Greenwich Village then and now, and very accurate in her description of community in the 60s as it differs from today. A cover blurb says, ‘community comes in many forms’ and about that Graham is spot on in her illustration of that quality. A small complaint—the manner in which her character Eve walks the Village streets is much like they were a route painted on a map showing which writer lived where. There is enormous character to the straight and twisting streets that define the Village and more about what gives those streets their special quality would have added texture.

On the whole, The Ghost of Greenwich Village comes off as less than I’d hoped, but it would be false to say that the deficit stopped or slowed my reading of the book. A shade too romantic for my tastes, but a story that will appeal to many.


  1. I, too, am drawn to Manhattan of the 60's, to those streets and scenes from my all too brief time living there at lease twice. And books about that time appeal to me--especially of the artists that roamed the same streets I did: singers changing the landscape of music; writers read who influenced me in my formative years as a writer.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America