Thursday, April 30, 2009

Gabriel Cohen's "Neptune Avenue"

Gabriel Cohen is the author of Red Hook, The Graving Dock, and Neptune Avenue, three crime novels featuring Brooklyn South Homicide detective Jack Leightner. He is also the author of the novel Boombox and of Storms Can’t Hurt the Sky, a nonfiction book about how to recover from divorce.

He has written for the New York Times, Poets & Writers, the New York Post magazine, Crimespree, and other publications, and will be the guest lecturer aboard the Queen Mary 2 ocean liner in May, 2009.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to Neptune Avenue and reported the following:
I feel lucky with this random page from my new novel. For me, my books are never just about plot or whodunnit. It doesn’t matter how action-packed or dramatic a story is if the reader doesn’t care about the characters.

One way to do that is to give them well-rounded personal histories, and to explore how those might affect their behavior. Page 99 of Neptune Avenue features a scene between my protagonist, Brooklyn South Homicide detective Jack Leightner, and his elderly uncle Leon, who survived the Holocaust only to become estranged from his brother, Jack’s father:

Jack stared down at the table. His uncle had managed to talk about the death of most of his family without much visible emotion. Maybe he had come to terms with it somehow, or figured out how to distance himself from the memory. But this wound was still fresh. Jack thought of his own brother, dead at just thirteen, and wanted to put an arm around his uncle. Instead he got up, filled a glass with water, and set it down in front of the old man. As if that would help.

Beyond character, I also love to explore settings, especially the crazy quilt of neighborhoods that is Brooklyn. I found the Russian immigrants of Brighton Beach particularly intriguing, partly because my own grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from what is now Ukraine, but also because I’m interested in testing the distance between real life and what we have learned to assume from pop culture. We often hear about “the Russian mafia.” Does such a thing really exist?

As the book begins, Jack learns that a Russian friend has been murdered. On Page 99 he asks his uncle if he has heard of a possible suspect named Semyon Balakutis.

Leon snorted. “He’s a thug.”

“Russian mafia?”

The old man frowned. “I don’t like this talk. Because of the movies, people think we are all hoodlums here in Brighton Beach. Most of us work very hard; we just want to make a success of our little beauty parlor or tchotchke shop.”

I think this page points to what I’m trying to do with my writing: to tell a vivid story, to encourage the reader to empathize with the characters, and to present them in a deeply realized, interesting world.
Learn more about the author and his work at Gabriel Cohen's website.

The Page 69 Test: The Graving Dock.

My Book, The Movie: Red Hook.

--Marshal Zeringue