The Block Fire of the Vanities: A Review of Brian Platzer’s Bed-Stuy Is Burning

/ /

Bed-Stuy is Burning
By Brian Platzer
(Atria Books, 326pp., $26)

Speaking in a strictly historiographical context, the borough best known for its perpetual conflagration was and seemingly will be in perpetuity: The Bronx. This markedly mellifluous reputation endures.

At one point, The Bronx did indeed burn. Part the fault of Bob Moses, Our Dear Master Builder, and the development of the Cross Bronx Expressway, part the fault of white flight out to the borough and into the northern suburbs of Westchester County, the Bronx took a very real hit during the second half of the 20th Century. Out of this very real, very stressed environment, “The Bronx is Burning” took hold as a moniker indelibly etched onto the borough in the 1970’s, sprung (apocryphally) from the mouth of a spry Howard Cosell during game two of the 1977 World Series as one could see the fires of the South Bronx burning from the climes of Yankee Stadium. Violent crime, drug crime, and a standard of living which rightfully continues to shame city aldermen ran roughshod over the northern borough.

In the intervening years between the 70s and now, the Bronx has improved. Is the Grand Concourse as Grand as it was in my Grandmother’s day? (I’m told it went something like: “Why go to Paris, we have our own Champs Elysees right here?”) No. But that vision and version of the Bronx is (and should be) past as the county has taken on an increasingly functional new shape. And yet, in a seeming testament to the powers of alliteration, the notion of a Burning Bronx and image of a Burning Bronx for some continues, power undiminished, to define the borough from without.

And there is cache in this foisted description. As recently as 2015, in a gesture which could be most generously described as crass, real estate developers bought a tract and warehouse space in the Port Morris neighborhood of the South Bronx, rebranding it “the Piano District” and, as one will, threw a party. The fete: a celebrity-adorned party to kick-off a transformation which was meant to render this bit of the city a new, badass-inflected millennial haven in the north – an appealing prospect for developer and tenant alike as prices in Brooklyn continue to rise and the post-9/11 global fetishization of New York shows no signs of quitting. Before the demolition of the eponymous former piano factory for which the neighborhood was now to be named, the developers threw a proper banger. Curated by party-curator, Lucian Smith, and titled (we remember both to curate and to title parties) “Macabre Suite”, the event featured shot-up burned-out cars and ornamental trashcan fires meant to evoke the bad old days of a very real Burning Bronx. The image of a burning Bronx now seemingly connotes something marketable, something to be taken on as a mantle of New York “authenticity”. And the people, or at least some of the people, are buying.

The force of alliteration unrelenting and flexible, Brian Platzer, resident of Bed-Stuy, Dalton educated and graduate of Columbia University and of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars has written a novel entitled Bed-Stuy Is Burning. This is a novel about his neighborhood and the tensions that simmer therein. Which is to say, Platzer’s is an ambitious first novel and one written out of a deep love for one’s neighborhood and fellow man.

The novel is set in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a tract of Brooklyn perhaps best known from its representation in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), a film which deftly captures the race-driven tensions of both the neighborhood and of the city at the time. As if not to be outdone by Mr. Lee, in this debut novel concerned with faith, race, and class, Platzer aspires toward a scope that would be daunting for even the established novelist.

And if there is a complaint to be issued against Platzer’s fine novel, it is one pegged to his near-vaulting ambition, though, given the myriad factors at play in the contemporary cultural landscape of New York City, his overreaching is understandable. And although Platzer occasionally does misstep as he tries to speak to the myriad of relevant topics (never mind their unity!), he impressively gets quite a bit of it right when focused.

A potted summary: Our protagonist, Aaron, is a disgraced, and now former, Rabbi, who currently makes a livelihood as a Wall-street type. The former Rabbi has a gambling problem and a faith problem, both of which previously wrecked Aaron’s ship, and the former of which remains his vice of vices. Aaron thrives: he lives with his journalist-aspirational live-in girlfriend, Amelia, and their baby, in a gorgeous brownstone in the historically Black Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. These are enterprising, well-intentioned New Yorkers seeking something between a good deal and an authentic experience in a neighborhood that is not and can never be their own. Gentrification, etc. The couple is contemporary. They use Peapod and Amazon to buy their things. They’re woke: they have a nanny of color who is making a spiritual transition from Christianity to Islam and covers her head in a hijab; she has a (potentially) romantic relationship developing with an Upstanding Single Father and Man of Color from the Block, Mr. Jupiter.

Theirs is a good, if tense, urban, white status quo in Bed-Stuy. And then a 12-year-old is shot and killed by the police in a nearby park, setting off a chain of events that lead to an all-out riot on the front steps of Aaron’s very well-preserved home in the neighborhood. (This same action puts an abrupt end to the budding romance between the nanny and Jupiter, the man whose untimely death occurs at the apex of the neighborhood riot which followed the shooting.) Things further deteriorate when Aaron’s downstairs tenant shoots and kills a rioting youth who was brandishing a gun.

Without giving away what’s left to give away, things get hot, nearly boil. (If things never reach that 212 degrees for the white characters in this novel – two people of color, as well as a good number of police officers, whose racial identities are left unstated, are killed in these riots.) But Aaron, Amelia and their baby make it out alive. Better still, they make it out alive and into redemption narratives. (So does the vexingly-placed, recurrent character of Benjamin Bratton: E.L. Doctorow, is this where everything was supposed to be headed?)

The other bits of de-escalation and redemption are resultant from a brave and last minute stoop-top sermon to the rioters of Bed-Stuy on the timely (this is Rosh Hashanah) topic of Abraham and Lot. It is a transformative moment for protagonist and for his property alike.

The Rabbi returns to the Faith, and Amelia goes from writing about Jonah Hill (who, by way of his explicit inclusion, seemingly managed to piss off both Platzer and Trent Reznor at some point in the last year) to making a name for herself writing about the events of the day, and race relations, and policing in Bed-Stuy, and the city at large. He’s a rabbi again, and she’s a famous reporter for no mere blog, but for the New York Times. Amelia makes her name off of the specific experiences of a young woman of color, Sara, who is caught up in the day’s events and who is paid by Amelia for her details, her story. And though there is a bit of intrigue between Sara and Amelia at the end of the novel, regarding an editorial written by Sara in which she outs Amelia’s payment of her source, we are left reassured that Amelia, like the brownstone, will be all right; she is too good and too big to take any real hit from Sara. The rabbi and Amelia have insurance.

Platzer’s novel can be read as a piece of millennial fiction, or as an urban novel, but it can also be read as a first novel by a Jewish American writer. As such – and because he is writing New York – the novel draws some logical comparisons. Considering the novel as the first by a Jewish American writer, one might compare it to Everything is Illuminated or The Mysteries of Pittsburg: in fact, Platzer’s is the very sort of first novel which has launched the now storied careers of our contemporary Jewish American luminaries. They are beautiful and ambitious and flawed efforts all, and Platzer’s novel stands in rarified company.

Given both the aesthetic and ethos-driven DNA of Bed-Stuy is Burning, as well as the aforementioned contemporary Jewish American context in which this novel might be considered, several questions arise. Considering the distance between the ideological and aesthetic approaches of these novels by Jonathan Safran Foer, Michael Chabon, and now Brian Platzer—as compared to the work of Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, et al.—one has to ask: is Platzer’s work merely a part of the new Romantic, Woke Jewish American Fiction in which Nice Jewish Boys have learned to behave as such? In some ways we are quite lucky to have Platzer writing in this newer mode: for instance, his representation of Jewish-Black relations in New York in no way recalls the distinctly phallic and highly problematic dynamic of Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet. Further, and with an eye towards growth, Platzer’s female characters in no way resemble Roth’s early and most troubling visions of women (novels along the lines of When She Was Good.) In fact, Platzer’s novel completely avoids characterization driven by ignorance and anger.

On the other hand, when the novel falls short, some of the errors read like a self-conscious gesturing away from the naughtiness of the Bad Jewboy of yesteryear. To this end, Bed-Stuy is Burning reads at times like an apology for Platzer’s Jewish American literary roots. Female characters are not Roth-like, but are sometimes written in the flawless and flat Chabonic mode (recalling the suspect representation of Bina Gelbfish, ex-wife and boss of the protagonist in the largely successful The Yiddish Policemen’s Union), seemingly to reassure readers that the novel’s author isn’t one of those Jews. As if to say: He’s sorry. We are all sorry. Not all Jewish Boys.

Still, this type of self-censorship is ironically absent when Platzer explores the romance between neighbors Jupiter and Antoinette, reinforcing external expectations of Blackness, Black New Yorkers, and Black New York.

One other significant problem throughout the novel is diction. Platzer spends quite a bit of time on his nouns – both those that matter to a novel of time and place (such as intersections and subway stops) and those that most certainly do not (earbuds). A startling amount of ink is devoted to proper nouns (, Google alerts, Rate My Professor, Find My Friends), seemingly in an effort to ground the novel in a moment and to imbue it with temporal terroir, authenticity – an effort executed unevenly. Importantly, these festooned proper nouns are typically related to technology: websites, delivery services, tech companies, and the like. All of this attention to the specifics of our epoch’s technology only focuses the reader more closely on the fact that the telos of this technology within the novel serves neoliberal ends.

Reading Platzer’s novel through the lens of David Harvey’s seminal work, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, one might say Platzer’s novel is an explicitly antirevolutionary, pro-capitalist novel in which finance helps to undermine the transformation of a neighborhood for the better. More recently in Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, Harvey has argued that

the idea of the right to the city does not arise primarily out of various intellectual fascinations and fads (though there are plenty of those around, as we know). It primarily rises up from the streets, out from neighborhoods, as a cry for help and sustenance by oppressed peoples in desperate times.

Harvey, here recalling Gramsci, is correct and the idea of “the right to the city” is something that comes from below – a cry from the lower depths. As such, Platzer’s characterization of the city (which is to say, who defines and has access to the city) is off the mark. Within the novel heroes are explicitly anathema to Harvey’s vision – this is no Gramscian people’s novel. Rather, our protagonists are of the same ilk as the bankers, investors and prospectors, the political, corporate and capital classes and forces that ultimately benefitted and continue to benefit from a Burning Bronx.

The narrative thrust of the novel is deliberately committed to the neoliberal dream, commodity fetishism, and the rule of the market. Platzer’s novel is about neoliberalism, in addition to race, class, and gender. These forces all drive the tension, yet neoliberalism is ostensibly the only force that goes without an explicit mention. It as if within the universe of the novel, the reality of neoliberalism is a cosmic force, or scientific law, and, as such, requires no word – no sooner would we get a mention of Newton.

Despite potential hardships associated with Amelia’s reporterly ethics, this family will survive and thrive thanks to their rented basement. There is a new money ethos that is backed up by narratives of struggle and redemption, making their lot one fairly earned in a meritocracy. The disgraced Rabbi who gambles? He’s good with finances and has, as such, seemingly earned his home, his comfort, his family.

And yet.

Platzer’s sprawling ambition comes from a place of honesty and vulnerability that is anathema to the posturing and certainty that underlies the neoliberal narrative strain.

It is specifically this vulnerability (and uncertainty) which makes for Platzer’s richest writing, when he writes the Holocaust. Aaron’s meditations – postmemory and those of a 3G Holocaust survivor—are written thoughtfully and honestly. Aaron the Rabbi is challenged as a Jewish American living in the wake of the Holocaust. There are no easy answers, though protagonist and reader alike might seek them out:

That Aaron’s great-grandparents – all eight – were taken in the Holocaust had once been another reason Aaron had believed he should be a rabbi. […] [H]e felt he owed it to the history of his family to become entrenched in the religion he doubted. If Adolph Hitler and hordes of Germans murdered so many of my family members because they were a certain thing, I should become that thing even more. That is what he believed, and, more than believed, that was what he felt down to the core of his being: that he should live his life in a way to redress the horrors that had come before him.

The narrative is consciously devoid of extrapolated lessons from the events of the Holocaust, or what Lawrence Langer has defined as “preempting the Holocaust”:

Even if Aaron could have proven that the sacrifice of that woman’s son had been somehow worth it because of what would happen afterward in her life, his unique position of a rabbi in the century after the Holocaust of the Jews made that answer, rational or not, insulting to all those who were murdered and all lose who’d lost so many of their loved ones, like Aaron’s now-deceased grandmother.

It is to this end that Platzer writes the Holocaust both thoughtfully and ethically. And, one should add, that he does so in a first novel is no small feat. He captures the undiminished force of the Holocaust as it continues to resonate, deafeningly, today.

This is a novel that is, no-doubt, flawed along several critical axes, but the energy and love and optimism behind it are undeniable. Platzer writes: “Aaron had wanted to help people through their problems” – this could be a simple coda for the author’s ambition, an enormous and admirable and ethical motivation. Reading these words, one has no doubt that Platzer is speaking plainly and honestly. Bed-Stuy is an exuberant and, at times, numinous gesture in the direction of healing a wounded world – Tikkun Olam – and a meditation on the importance of the sort of interpersonal relationships which can make this healing begin. His is an effort to understand history and violence and race and class, and it is an earnest effort to document and to systematize the nature of the injured world and to begin, quite guilelessly, to heal these wounds.

Writers don’t need the hardness of an adopted burning borough to establish their ethos as writers of compassion and competence. Nor do they need to believe too much in the redemptive power of the market. Those moments where Platzer lets down his guard, and ironically turns inward, are where we find the makings of a great novelist, the true voice of a New Jewish American Fiction.