Homes and Haunts: Colson Whitehead’s The Colossus of New York
There’s a bookstore in Columbus, Ohio that on paper should appeal to a bibliophile like myself. It’s called The Book Loft of German Village, which a sign out front describes succinctly as a “32 ROOM BOOK SALE.” A slightly less punchy description would be an old, labyrinthine, three-story building filled with narrow corridors and varyingly sized spaces with books lining nearly every wall and non-floor surface. Aside from the missing dash between the compound adjective, the characterization of the sign is slightly disingenuous, inasmuch as the word “sale,” which connotes saving, doesn’t refer to most of the goods sold at the store. A vast majority of the books at the Book Loft are cover priced. Newer titles come with a 5% discount. Remaindered volumes cost around half of their original prices, and a smaller number of clearance titles go for even less.
As a book-obsessed critic with a library of over 3,500 books, and as a mostly broke writer, I much prefer used bookstores. Not only are they kinder on my wallet, but they offer something commercial enterprises cannot: surprises. One visit to a new bookstore will pretty much tell me what they’ll always have in stock, whereas secondhand shops add to their inventories regularly. I can leave a good used bookstore with more books for less money, and perhaps discover a title I wasn’t familiar with. I cherish the hunt.
At the Book Loft, the labyrinth of hallways and rooms makes you hunt, alright, but there it is a search for reduced-priced items among the full-priced ones. Many of the discounted books are scattered throughout the shelves, and there aren’t too many of these to begin with, so after an exhaustive perusal I often leave without finding anything. Now—to be clear—if I’m in the market for a recent title, or if I simply need a book pronto for a piece I’m writing, I will of course patronize an independent shop like the Book Loft in order to support such businesses. I’m talking about the bookhound part of my personality, the one that already owns so many books it’s difficult to find things I don’t already have on one of my twenty-five shelves.
On a Saturday afternoon not long ago I had plans to meet a friend at a nearby coffee shop, so as I often do I showed up early and went to the Book Loft. This was a mistake. The already tight corridors of the place are particularly awkward to navigate when it’s filled with what I think of as bookstore tourists. These are people who go to bookstores infrequently, and who do so usually for gifts or to purchase a very specific title. Tagging along with these tourists are unhappy children (I overheard a kid say to his mother, “I hate this”), grouchy spouses (usually men), and loud friends who say things like, “Do you really need another book?” The worst part about these tourists, though, is their unfamiliarity with the (to be fair) confusing layout. They turn a corner only to find more hallways, turning abruptly, and they let out a curt guffaw, “This place is like a maze.” They turn to each other and giggle and ask, “How do we get out of here?” as if there aren’t brightly lit EXIT signs with arrows in every single room. These things can be irksome, sometimes, but what is actually frustrating is how slowly they move. Most of the aisles are so small that scooting by someone is super awkward, your bodies practically rubbing together as you pass. In the doorways between areas, groups of people bottleneck so badly you have to wait for a dozen or more people to pass before you can continue on. The sections I like to check out (essays, lit crit, other various nonfictions) are deep into the store, and merely getting back to the register can take a long time. On this particular day, I nabbed a deal on Colson Whitehead’s The Colossus of New York: A City in Thirteen Parts, a rare work of nonfiction from one of the most celebrated novelists of his generation. Wading through the swamp of shoppers in order to pay took a frustratingly long time, and then when I finally reached my destination, I realized I had left my water bottle in the essays shelves, so I was forced to trudge through the hordes once more.
By the time I exited the building, stepping into a crisp afternoon, my patience had waned. It was still too early to meet my friend, so I stood on the sidewalk and took in the neighborhood, which is called German Village, a not-so-very appealing moniker for a lovely and storied district of the city. The sun’s muted glimmers gently kaleidoscoped my vision as they danced on the red bricks for which the area is known. Cool air snuck into my clothes, a breezy shower to wash off the grime of claustrophobic annoyance. I have visited this neighborhood so many times in my life that iIts familiarity prevents me from seeing it afresh, and only now as I write this do I appreciate the nuances of its character. At the time, German Village served only as a relief of being out of the store—any place outside would have suited me, I would have thought. But now I think those historic streets with all their anachronisms instilled something in me that has blossomed retrospectively.
With some time still before my friend was to arrive, I sat in the coffee shop and embarked on Whitehead’s tour of his hometown.
The essays comprising The Colossus of New York are brief, lyrical, and beautifully written. Published in 2003, these pieces come from that post-9/11 era in which everything written about New York had a hue of tragic appreciation, a reawakened softness towards a city known for its hardness. More than two decades later, I tend to find those hello-to-all-that odes to New York obnoxious and often naively self-aggrandizing, much like the way undergraduates studying abroad describe their sojourns to foreign environs, as if they were the first ones to discover them. But many of the panegyrics that emerged after the attacks came from earnest, tender pain, and Whitehead, a true native, is particularly equipped with both the experience and the literary skill to make his celebration sing not just for an essay’s length but a book’s.
Whitehead employs a mix of first-, second-, and third-person narration, alternating between personal reflection, speculative portraiture, and grand observation. “City Limits,” the opening essay, posits that every New Yorker builds a “private New York the first time you lay eyes on it,” and that these mental constructions remain true to us even when the literal landscape changes. You become a New Yorker, Whitehead writes, “the first time you say, That used to be a Munsey’s, or That used to be the Tic Toc Lounge.” To you, no matter what building stands in its place, what once existed will always come to mind first, like spotting the original colors of a façade under its freshly painted veneer. But this constant change is part of what makes the city a rewarding challenge: “New York City does not hold our former selves against us. Perhaps we can extend the same courtesy.”
Whitehead’s language is as rich and surprising as we’ve come to expect in his novels. “Sanitation engineers,” he notes, “swashbuckle to sidewalks after scraps,” and in “Central Park,” the squeak of a swing set is likened to “a gargoyle tuning instruments.” In a bar downtown, a song “strides from the jukebox full-bodied.” Bludgeoning rain is “thrown into their faces like needles or proof.” He also uses fictional devices too, describing the idiosyncratic inner lives of myriad fellow denizens. In “Rush Hour,” a commuter has had enough: “Knuckle sandwich for the next person who steps on her foot.”
I expected the writing to be good, but I didn’t anticipate The Colossus of New York sending me into deep contemplation about my own city. I lived in Boston for nearly seven years, and during that time I took the Fung Wah bus to New York regularly, so I assumed Whitehead’s book would evoke memories of those reckless and raucous weekends. While some of those trips were conjured in my mind, I mostly thought about Columbus, a place with which I have a fraught relationship. Though I was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I was raised in central Ohio. So this is where I’m from.
The key word in that sentence is from—meaning, where I was; not where I am. Being from Columbus is fine. In fact, I used to get a kick out of telling people in Massachusetts that I came from Ohio, as if it were somehow exotic. When I lived in Boston—or North Carolina, or England—I was from Ohio. Now, though, it is also where I live. I’m back, and although my initial return was meant to be temporary, my stay has, predictably, been prolonged and, I worry, may become permanent. I want to leave, but I have nowhere to go.
One of the things I learned in my nomadic years is that mere relocation won’t solve your problems. I can’t move away solely because I’m not completely happy in Columbus; I need to move toward something, not simply away from anything. But as a broke freelance book critic in an increasingly unsustainable industry, I don’t foresee too many opportunities for me to change geographies.
Reading Whitehead’s version of his hometown, I found myself jealous of his elaborate love for New York. I don’t wish I grew up in Manhattan; rather, I wish I loved my city as much as he does. I wish I saw it with as much nuance as he does. I wish I wanted to see it with as much care and detail. I wish I were motivated to imagine myself into the lives of the people who live here with me. I wish I had reason to break Columbus down into thirteen parts and examine it through microscopic and poetic lenses.
“I’m here,” Whitehead writes, “because I was born here and thus ruined for anywhere else.” Growing up, I read books and watched films that made me yearn to be anywhere but where I was. A budding filmmaker, I imagined I’d end up in LA or even New York, and maybe I wouldn’t maintain a homebase for very long, just keep moving and seeing the world and earning the worldly nuance I felt being from Ohio robbed me of. Ohio was like the airport of my life’s journey, being there was only exciting because it meant I would eventually end up somewhere else. Staying here, for young me, was the same as failing.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with Columbus as a city. It’s actually got quite a lot going for it. And although I recognize those great qualities, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to appreciate them the way I appreciated an adopted home like Boston. Take the Book Loft, for instance. If I visited a bookstore like that in another city, the Book Loft would have amazed me. It would have been evidence of how artsy and interesting the city that housed it was. The crowded corridors might have suggested that the town was especially literate, more like me than my hometown. But as it is, the Book Loft exists in Columbus, and I’ve been there dozens of times. I can’t see it for the wonder that it is.And what’s even sadder is that I know one day I will stand in that exact same spot I stood after buying The Colossus of New York and waiting for my friend, only this time the Book Loft will be gone, torn down to make room for some gaudy high-rise condos, and in that moment I will look at whatever monstrosity has taken its place and say, “That used to be the Book Loft.” And perhaps then I will become a citizen of my city. Until then, I can acknowledge that Columbus accepted me when I needed a place to go. It demanded little and gave much. Perhaps I can extend the same courtesy.
Jonathan Russell Clark is a former staff writer for Literary Hub, and his essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Atlantic, Tin House, Vulture, the Columbus Dispatch, LA Review of Books, New Republic, The Georgia Review, and dozens of others. Most recently, he wrote about a debut novel by a professional skateboarder for the L.A. Times. His first book, An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom, a study of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, was published in 2018. His second book, Skateboard, will be a part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series and will be published in 2022.