annotation by Kate Maruyama
Reading books outside your given genre can still inform your writing on an elemental scale. I love reading Peter Blauner because of his grip on various aspects of society and how they tend to slam up against one another in New York City. He has a mastery of character structure and contrasts very different lives with each other before a character inevitably crosses the line—and it is there that things explode and become something new.
Blauner’s work is painstakingly researched and informed deeply in a way that only a lifetime New Yorker can accomplish. This is a great lesson in how writers can take advantage of a lifetime knowledge of a place: and how many aspects of a character’s life, ego and story that place can affect. In The Intruder, there’s a many-layered conversation between an upper West Side transplant from Brooklyn and his contractor, where they talk about the old neighborhood. But they’re not just talking about the old neighborhood: the subtext is Jake saying, “I’m still a guy from the ‘hood, even though I live in this brownstone and you’re technically working for me…” and this the conversation also takes on a sinister undercurrent that the reader can sense, but not totally make out. This delicate social balancing act gets turned on its ear further on in the book—all starting in a conversation about the neighborhood. Blauner reminds us to pay attention: every detail matters.
Blauner explores the guilt of the innocent and the innocence of the guilty in this story of a homeless man who becomes obsessed with a family, stalking them and the patriarch of that family’s response to this threat. What results is a tangle in which he shows us that as separately as we try to live our city-dwelling lives, we are all tied together more closely than we think.
Once the characters start crossing between their social strata, disaster ensues. In close third person and in intimate detail, we meet Jake the well-to-do lawyer, John G the homeless man, and Philip, the Mafioso. We learn their motivations, background and the reasons for their choices. While there is no part of me that liked Philip, Blauner made me feel for the place life put him—his mobster boss uncle who sexually abused him as a child, his ideas of the success he’ll never attain. The deep sympathy he was able to maintain with each character made the impossibility of their situation all the more painful.
Blauner gives us John Gates in careful layers. We open with his reflections on how he ended up homeless in the park being pushed around by punk kids, who soak him in gasoline and are about to set him on fire. It was through Blauner’s interviews with a guy who had started out with a life, a job, a family, and ended up on the streets that he learned that these things happen in increments, not all at once. In order to show us how John G arrived at the low point where we meet him, Blauner points out that we have to see “each thing in light of what happened before.” We have deep sympathy for John G. His daughter has died, his marriage has fallen apart, he was given Haldol to cope, and started using crack along the way. He stayed at a friend’s apartment and one night just didn’t go home. Then he was on the streets. His paperwork has been shuffled around so much that when he goes to seek help at a hospital, where he encounters Jake’s wife, Dana, she can’t treat him until she sends him to a clinic she where she works–but then only if he gets the right paperwork. John G. is tantalizingly close to getting help, to getting some sort of a life back, but he spends the night in a shelter and it’s when he’s raped by a guard that he becomes truly unhinged and starts to stalk Jake’s family. Jake finds himself increasingly squeezed by this guy, incredulous that this city, which he has spent his life getting to the top of, is closing in around him. Enter Philip the contractor and the web begins to circle in on itself.
The careful structure of the book is what makes it so difficult to put down and it is this structure that can inform any genre of novel writing. We gain intimate knowledge of each character and his motivation and Blauner ratchets up the stakes for each of them in every ensuing chapter, but it’s the cutting back and forth between the upped stakes that creates its own kinetic energy. John G and Jake’s lives become more entwined and just when you think John’s going to get things together, find his way with the aid of Abraham, who lives in the tunnels under Riverside Drive, Philip enters the scene. Philip encourages Jake to cross the tensile borderlines between homeless and property owner–Guy who has made it and disenfranchised. And it’s then that things explode.
Because of my screenwriting background, I enjoy the way in which cutting from one story to another can up the tension, but in the latest novel I’m working on, with three points of view, three people all in each other’s lives, I got so wrapped up in each person’s story I forgot for several drafts how they were affecting each other’s lives directly. Blauner reminds us that when the characters each step off their tracks and infect each other’s lives, stir things up, that the real action begins. And if you can push characters beyond their limits, dangerously into each other’s lives, that’s where the story gets interesting.