The Great Mistake by Jonathan Lee review – the man who shaped New York

Ekn a quiet corner of New York’s Central Park, there is a stone bench streaked with bird droppings. It’s an unassuming memorial for the “Father of Greater New York” – Andrew Haswell Green (1820-1903), a man the clamorous, roiling city has largely forgotten. It was AH Green, a lawyer and civic powerhouse, who championed the creation of Central Park, and the five-borough infrastructure that gave New York its modern shape. No legacy is immune from pigeon poo.

Op daardie stadium, the borough plan – a consolidation of a dozen satellite towns into a single megacity – was reviled as much it was celebrated, publicly denounced in 1898 as “The Great Mistake”. Jonathan Lee’s novelisation of Green’s life, written in the south-east borough of Brooklyn, steals its title from this historical outrage; a tale of blunders, bad luck and fateful misunderstandings.

“How do we picture the past?” the British writer asks, when the present brings much-needed context but the past is ever-receding. Fiction can collapse the space between the two – conjure the past with the tools of the present. This is what Lee does, with a great deal of care and wit, in his fourth book. The Great Mistake is not a novel of grand deeds, but of grand imagination, a novel that wonders how a mind like Green’s came into being. “He did not foresee events,” Lee writes, “he instigated them.”

When the intensely private Mr Green is gunned down in the street outside his home at the age of 83, rumours swirl: “Was it a crime of passion, or a political assassination, or some kind of great mistake?” Inspector McClusky is assigned to the case: a barrel-chested, heavy-footed fellow who’s worn himself a little existentially thin, like so many literary detectives before him. A regular dose of cocaine dulls the demons and clears the sinuses, for now at least.

The Great Mistake skips between McClusky’s fidgety investigation and Green’s formative years. The seventh of eleven children, young Andrew is banished to New York at 15 to earn his keep, and to have the dreamy wonder knocked out of him. “His family feared he might one day succumb to the catastrophe of being a poet,” Lee jests. That’s not all they’re afraid of, and Green will carry the weight of their unvoiced shame for the rest of his life. (Potted biographies still refer to Green as a “confirmed bachelor” – that tired old code.)

Green arrives in New York nursing a tenacious case of ambition. “He had begun to feel the first stirrings of it,” Lee writes, “the longing to transform himself into someone new, that special American itch for the future which, even now, so often afflicts the young.” In the next decade Green will unmake and remake himself, including a burnishing year in the sugarcane plantations of Trinidad, which will fill his pockets but shake loose his certainties. “He loses his understanding of the word free, for the newly freed still seem enslaved in all but name.”

Green will also meet the effusive Samuel Tilden, unabashed dreamer and future presidential candidate: “A person who needed a sincere partner with him to pursue his plans.” Tilden and Green will spend the rest of their lives working to shape New York into the city they believe it can be. Theirs is a love story wrought in steel, stone and silence; chaste and ever-yearning. “Might our private loneliness, our most crushing inner fears, push us outward, at times, into greater public good?”

The Great Mistake is pure literary comfort food: yet another tale of gilded age New York, pitiless and gorgeous; yet another scrappy, self-made man thrusting his way up through the social strata; yet another peer into the brothels and seedy backrooms; yet another heart-hardened cop teetering on the edge; yet another contemplation of the fickleness of history, and the grand precarity of reputation. Paradoxically, it makes for quite the risk; it’s difficult to distinguish yourself in the bustle. The lure of the New York novel seems much like the lure of New York. “It was a cathedral of possibilities” Green thinks of his city, “it might remember him or it might forget him.”

Much like its visionary hero, The Great Mistake feels quietly but intently ambitious, and similarly driven by the quest for a kind of tidy beauty. Lee’s prose is so carefully wrought it often wanders into aphorism. Even the Dickensian flourishes feel a little too neatly whimsical; the cruelties too exquisite. Green’s soul-shaking year in Trinidad is described with gauzy, vague beauty, but the fate of Green’s black assailant, Cornelius Williams, unfolds in the margins – it’s all too ugly.

“There are always at least two histories happening,” Lee writes, “the inner and the outer, the private in the public.” It is in imagining the bruises and longings of AH Green’s private history that The Great Mistake feels entirely its own. It is not an antidote, but a humane correction to the impenetrable, stone-chiselled histories of impenetrable stone-chiselled men.

Central Park, Lee explains, is a “careful fraudulence”. The waterways, the rocky outcrops, the wooded glens: all manmade. Landscaping the park required more gunpowder than the battle of Gettysburg. But none of that artifice matters once you’re walking there; you’re too grateful for the sheer glorious fact of it. The Great Mistake is the literary equivalent of that too-cultivated wilderness. Go wander awhile.

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