The Empire State Building turns 75 this year, and a more fitting birthday present could hardly be desired. Empire Rising is a page-turner that cheerfully abandons all pretenses to high style. Call it historical pulp fiction, engaging and action-filled enough for a day at the beach, but set against the forging of the crown jewel of Manhattan’s gorgeous skyline.
There are some uncomfortable expository moments as author Thomas Kelly tries to get the tricky mix of fact and fiction right, particularly in the first few pages. Opening the book with the first day of construction allows Kelly to give a brief outline of the history of the site, as well as introducing a number of real-life New York City figures—Al Smith, former mayor, failed presidential candidate, and unreconstructed New Yorker; Mayor Walker, a showboat of a man firmly tucked in the pocket of the Tammany Hall goon squad; the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, torn down to make way for the new building—all limned by the internal monologue of the fictional Michael Briody, a dashing laborer chosen to lay the ceremonial first rivet. The synopsis feels a little forced and educational—fascinating stuff, to be sure, but it strikes a PBS tone that jars a little in the context of a novel. Happily, Kelly soon gets down to the business of storytelling, and the book starts to take on a life of its own.
As with any good pulp novel, there’s plenty of intrigue, double-crossing, and, of course, a good love story. Briody is a Man With a Past—he’s come to these shores to obtain funds and weaponry for the Irish Republican Army, but the possibility of building a new life has begun to sway his heart. Tipping the scales is his budding romance with Grace Masterson, an artist living on a houseboat tethered to a Williamsburg pier. But she is the kept woman of the immensely crooked Johnny Farrell, a Tammany Hall big shot and the mayor’s right-hand man. Briody soon finds himself running afoul of every evil machine in town, while falling in love with both Grace and the solace he finds in the hard, honest work of raising the building.
The descriptions of the labor itself resonate more deeply than almost anything else in the book—Kelly, a former sandhog, clearly hears the noise of construction as the finest of work songs, and the filial affection he has for the rivet gang makes those passages sparkle. The pride and joy he feels toward the city he’s helped build is cleansing, especially when contrasted with the true dirtiness of the violence that financed the operation. That giddy awe is the true triumph of this novel—reconciling the pain and suffering that must go into making our most beautiful treasures, be they skyscrapers or human love.