IIn a quiet corner of New York’s Central Park, there is a stone bench stained with bird droppings. It is a modest memorial to the “Father of Greater New York,” Andrew Haswell Green (1820-1903), a man the roaring and turbulent city has largely forgotten. It was AH Green, a lawyer and civic powerhouse, who championed the creation of Central Park and the five-county infrastructure that gave New York its modern shape. No legacy is immune from pigeon poop.
At that time, the municipality’s plan, a consolidation of a dozen satellite cities into a single megacity, was both reviled and celebrated, publicly denounced in 1898 as “The Big Mistake.” Jonathan Lee’s novelization of Green’s life, written in the southeastern borough of Brooklyn, takes the title off this historic outrage; a history of mistakes, bad luck and fatal misunderstandings.
“How do we imagine the past?” asks the British writer, when the present brings a much needed context but the past is constantly drifting away. Fiction can collapse the space between the two: conjuring the past with the tools of the present. This is what Lee does, with great care and ingenuity, in his fourth book. The big mistake It is not a novel of great feats, but of great imagination, a novel that asks how a mind like Green’s came into being. “He did not foresee the events,” writes Lee, “instigated them.”
When Green is shot and killed in the street in front of his home at the age of 83, rumors arise: “Was it a crime of passion, a political murder, or some kind of big mistake?” Inspector McClusky is assigned to the case: a heavy-chested, heavy-footed guy who has worn himself a little existentially thin, like so many literary detectives before him. A regular dose of cocaine quenches the demons and clears the sinuses, at least for now.
The big mistake jumps between McClusky’s restless investigation and Green’s formative years. The seventh of eleven children, young Andrew is banished to New York at age 15 to earn a living and to have his dreamy wonder taken away from him. “His family feared that one day he might succumb to the catastrophe of being a poet,” jokes Lee. That’s not all they fear, and Green will carry the weight of his unspoken shame for the rest of his life. (The potted biographies still refer to Green as a “confirmed bachelor,” that tired old code.)
Green arrives in New York with a stubborn case of ambition. “He had begun to feel the first signs,” Lee writes, “the longing to become someone new, that special American itch for the future that, even now, so often afflicts young people.” In the next decade, Green will undo and remake himself, including a year of burnishing on Trinidad’s sugarcane plantations, which will fill his pockets but lose his certainties. “Loses understanding of the word free, because the newly freed still look like slaves in everything but name. “
Green will also meet the effusive Samuel Tilden, shameless dreamer and future presidential candidate: “A person who needed a sincere partner with him to carry out his plans.” Tilden and Green will spend the rest of their lives working to make New York the city they think it can be. His is a love story forged in steel, stone and silence; chaste and always eager. “Could our private loneliness, our most crushing internal fears, push us outward, at times, toward a greater public good?”
The big mistake it’s pure comforting literary food: yet another story from New York’s golden age, ruthless and beautiful; another tough man, who made himself, working his way through the social strata; another look at brothels and seedy hindquarters; another heart-hardened cop staggering on the brink; yet another contemplation of the inconstancy of history and the great precariousness of reputation. Paradoxically, it represents a great risk; it is difficult to distinguish between the bustle. The appeal of the New York novel is very similar to the appeal of New York. “It was a cathedral of possibilities …” Green thinks of his city, “I could remember it or I could forget it.”
Like your visionary hero, The big mistake it feels quietly but intensely ambitious, and similarly driven by the pursuit of a sort of orderly beauty. Lee’s prose is so carefully crafted that it often becomes an aphorism. Even Dickens’s flourishes feel a little too cleverly whimsical; the cruelties too exquisite. Green’s poignant year in Trinidad is portrayed with vague, vaporous beauty, but the fate of Green’s black raider, Cornelius Williams, plays out on the fringes – he’s too ugly.
“There are always at least two stories,” writes Lee, “the internal and the external, the private in the public.” It is by imagining the bruises and longings of AH Green’s private history that The big mistake feels completely your own. It is not an antidote, but a human correction to the impenetrable stories chiseled in stone of impenetrable men chiseled in stone.
Central Park, Lee explains, is a “careful fraud.” The waterways, the rocky outcrops, the forested ravines – all man-made. The landscaping of the park required more gunpowder than the Battle of Gettysburg. But none of that artifice matters once you’re walking there; you are too grateful for the glorious fact of it. The big mistake it is the literary equivalent of that over-cultivated desert. Go for a walk.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism