• Karl Taro Greenfeld
  • HarperCollins
  • 272 pp.

A group of fathers in the trendy Manhattan neighborhood of Tribeca share their stories in the author’s debut novel.

Reviewed by C.B. Santore

Make the setting a neighborhood in transition on the lower west side of Manhattan. Populate it with characters, some ambitious, some ambivalent. Add angst, hypocrisy, longing, desire, regret. Observe. Karl Taro Greenfeld’s first novel, Triburbia, is a window on late-20th-century Tribeca and the people who lived there, enlivened by the author’s experience as a Tribeca resident. The voyeur in you will keep you reading as his characters stumble, fall and pick themselves back up.

Home to art galleries, upscale restaurants and million-dollar loft apartments, the triangular area below Canal Street that became the trendy Tri-Be-Ca seems far afield from the middle-class suburban world of the typical American family. Greenfeld, however, suggests human nature is similar no matter the neighborhood, albeit I’m guessing with more adult sex and parental drug use in his rendering of the Manhattan version.

The novel centers on a group of fathers who regularly meet for coffee after dropping their children off at the same school. The chapters are links in a chain — separate but interconnected — each of which could be a short story. Each story is told from the perspective of one of the men, or of a wife or daughter.

The men interact because of location rather than affection. We watch as, by choice or happenstance, the rundown area of unoccupied commercial buildings becomes their home and workplace, giving a backdrop to their lives. These are acquaintances, not really friendships. The men don’t barbecue with their families in each other’s backyards or get drunk together at the country club or make passes at each other’s wives at cocktail parties, but they do eat together, get drunk, and bed each other’s wives or daughters. Life in Tribeca, it seems, may be more similar to, than different from, life in the suburbs — or any other city or town.

There is no hero, not much suspense and little plot progression, but the stories are gripping because they are about people with fears and foibles like our own, even if we don’t live in a fashionable neighborhood. They slowly realize their dreams have died, been stolen or just slipped away over the years.

Some are privileged but adrift; others never make the fortunes their talents could have garnered. Mark is a fair musician who serendipitously becomes a sound engineer, which results in more financial success than his musicianship would have warranted. “But then, don’t we all feel like we are on borrowed time?” he thinks. “Like sooner or later the truth about our base natures will be revealed and we will be shown for who we really are?” His wife Brooke, a smart, successful magazine editor, by her own admission indulges in too much marijuana. “I try to never ask myself how did I get here, I ask myself why,” she tells us.

There is loss and longing. A sculptor lives off the earnings of his more successful wife and lets a talent for baseball slip away because he never really was motivated to play. A puppeteer, dejected by an affair grown cold, never sees his work become commercially viable. In his estimation, ruthlessness, a trait he lacks, is a prerequisite for success, and sadly there is no penalty for being ruthless. His daughter says of him “... he had succumbed to life rather than seized it.”

Some are just oblivious. Giancarlo is a famous chef with multiple restaurants but unaware of the damage his pursuit of fame and fortune causes his family. He “... always has a reason for his friendships.” The playwright Levi-Levy is the Peter Pan boy — never on time, never reliable.

The most satisfying relationship in the group is between suspected mobster Rankin and his cocktail-waitress wife. He is self-assured — perhaps because of his pragmatic nature or perhaps because of his muscle — and happy that his wife has so easily assumed the role of a model mother.

In the end hope doesn’t shine through, but it glimmers. Although the life of one character unravels when he is called out as a fraud for fabricating his memoir he says, “In the end, I still believe, you don’t always lose.” Mark, the sound engineer, sums up Triburbia: “You never know how it all adds up, or doesn’t. Something seems like a bad break and ends up lucky.” It’s the same, whether you live in Tribeca or suburbia.

C. B. Santore is a freelance writer and editor in Fairfax, Virginia.

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