“The number one rule of thieves is that nothing is too small to steal.”—Jimmy Breslin
When I started this introduction I was looking for a good “big city” quote, that would best describe Thomas Kelly’s writing, and found it in the above, from Jimmy Breslin—patron saint of urban wisdom. It struck me as perfect because in all of Kelly’s novels everyone from upper echelons of power to lowlife thugs are all stealing what they think is rightly theirs from New York City. Whether it's power, influence or cash, his characters are all driven by ambition.
The idea that New York City is both a place and a metaphor that describes American progress and is shaped by it’s immigrants, is a running theme in Kelly’s three novels: Payback, The Rackets, and Empire Rising. They focus, in part on the place of the Irish-American experience at different stages in New York City’s progress. I say “in part” because his novels trace the physical and political momentum of NYC as much as they do its citizens. Kelly shines a light on the intersection of labor, politics, and crime. He understands that this triad of effort, infuence, and interference is the equation that has driven the city since it was a Dutch trading post.
He is uniquely qualified to tell these tales. At different points in his life Kelly has been a Teamster and Sandhog (the labor union that digs the tunnels for New York ). He’s worked for two mayors: for one as an advance man, for the other as an occasional speech writer. And he has worked as a consultantant for the NYPD. Kelly knows the cops, and the robbers, the stumblebums and champs, and where the bodies are buried.
To quote fellow New Jerseyan, and voice of NYC, Frank Sinatra...
I’ve been a puppet, a pauper,
A pirate, a poet,
A pawn and a king,
I’ve been up and down and over and out
And I know one thing
Each time I find myself laying
Flat on my face
I just pick myself up and get back in the race
But all the real life expeirience in the world doesn’t make for good writing, and Kelly’s New York City lives and breathes through his charecters and well crafted plotlines. He populates his novels with a range of thieves, martyrs and saints. The bosses, chumps and innocent standbyers, alternate between mayhem, contemplative internal monologue, and back again. And through it all vocalizing crisp dialogue as they all careen on Kelly’s literary collision courses.
With his entry into The Hypothetical Library—Metropolis—Kelly would have expanded his documentation of NYC’s ascendancy to a quartet of novels. Metropolis would be set during the 1950’s. It was a decade when the cops and fireman were almost all Irish, when labor’s power was becoming entrenched, and the political landscape was begining to shift as New York’s and America took its place as the driver of the world’s future. Although we all know more or less what happened, we’ll just have to remain in the dark as to how it would have happened as described by Kelly’s unflinching insight, and hypothetical pen.
METROPOLIS—The hypothetical flap copy
“New York, 1950’s: A city at the height of its power and influence is being re-made. All over town wrecking balls swing, obliterating neighborhoods to make way for housing and highways and new civic landmarks. Fortunes are being grabbed. It’s called progress but for the thousands of powerless people displaced it is something else entirely. On a snowy April night the broken body of a community activist is found amidst the ruin of a Manhattan tenement block slated for demolition.
Meanwhile, the mob, which has its grip on all the city’s power centers, is at war. The psychotic Vito Genovese is waging a bloody campaign to unseat Frank Costello, the underworlds’ urbane political czar.
Detective Jack Minogue, a dissolute hero of the Pacific war, is re-energized when he catches the case of the murdered activist. But as he digs deeper he realizes it’s a murder that his bosses don’t want solved. Just as he decides to go along with the program and drop the case, the dead woman’s grief stricken daughter commits suicide. Now, nothing can stop Minogue in his quest for the truth. His only true ally in that search is Angela Cioffi, a beautiful photographer for the Daily News, whose own experience covering the war in Europe has left her scarred and elusive. The answers they find will rock the city to its core.
Kelly’s panoramic portrayal of a city in the midst of it’s post war transformation is stunning in it’s sweep and ambition. His characters real and imagined take us from the shimmering stage of the Copacabana to the back alleys of the Bronx, from the inner workings of Tammany Hall and the NYPD to the construction sites of the ascendant metropolis. But most vitally they take us to the intersection where the above world and the under world meet – the place where true power lies.”
The promotional quote—T.J. English
"With Metropolis Kelly has achieved something far trickier than the Great American Novel—he has delivered the Great New York Novel"
TJ English—Author of Havana Nocturne
Thomas Kelly is the author of three critically acclaimed novels and has been hailed as the premiere urban novelist of his generation.
Before embarking on his writing career, he spent ten years as a construction worker, including four years as a sandhog in the Bronx. He went on to earn a bachelor's degree in political economy from Fordham University and a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University. He also worked on a number of political campaigns on the city, state, and national levels.
New Line Cinema optioned Thomas Kelly’s first novel, PAYBACK, for Ted Demme’s Spanky Pictures. David Mamet adapted PAYBACK for the screen.
Tom’s second novel, THE RACKETS, was published by the esteemed Farrar, Straus & Giroux and was selected by the New York Times as a notable book for 2001. Tom adapted the novel for Touchstone Television/ABC as a one-hour drama with Sydney Pollack serving as Executive Producer.
Tom’s latest novel EMPIRE RISING was published by FSG in Spring 2005 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the construction of the Empire State Building. EMPIRE RISING was selected by the New York Times as a notable book for 2005. EMPIRE RISING was a finalist for the IMPAC Dublin, literary award.
Tom has developed and produced numerous television shows including NIGHT WATCH, an original drama series for HBO, the one-hour dramas ONE POLICE PLAZA and GETTING MADE for Paramount Television/CBS, CITY INVINCIBLE a show set in the world of New York’s construction industry for AMC, and SANDHOGS for the History Channel. His documentary THE GREATEST TUNNEL EVER BUILT won best documentary prize at the VISION FEST film festival at Tribeca Cinemas.
Tom has also worked as a journalist and his work has appeared in numerous publications including Esquire, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Mondadori First, The Times of London, the New York Post and the New York Daily News
Next week: Brian Evenson