Pretend All Your Life
In a more innocent time in New York City, before the 9/11 catastrophe, Richard Gallin cavalierly counseled his under-achieving son, “Pretend to be a thing all your life and at the end of your life, that is what you will have been.”
Gallin is a nearly famous plastic surgeon with a high-end practice on Manhattan’s Upper East Side; his professional success is built on helping people pretend to be someone else. But Gallin’s son, Bernardo, takes his father’s advice too literally, convincing the world he was killed in the World Trade Centers on 9/11 and leaving behind a wife and child. Only one last step remains in Bernardo’s melancholy plot: Bernardo needs appearance-altering surgery from his father. Lurking in the shadows is a man nursing a grudge against Dr. Gallin, a man capable of exposing the terrible family secret.
Pretend All Your Life, Joseph Mackin’s first novel, is a little book with as much audacity as Bernardo Gallin. Although constructed as a thriller built around Bernardo’s great ruse, the book features several characters in the midst of their own ruses—all pretending they are something else: there is Nick Adams, pretending he is a criminal extortionist, but not cut out for that hard-edged line of work; there is Miguel, pretending he is a powerful street thug, but really only aspiring access into the middle class; and there is Richard Gallin, part-time alcoholic and full-time narcissist, pretending to be an upstanding physician.
Pretend All Your Life joins the long-list of works by Manhattanites about life in Manhattan. But Mackin’s Manhattan bears little resemblance to the sharp-elbowed but ultimately endearing Manhattan of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City or Pete Hammill’s A Drinking Life. Mackin’s Manhattan is a simmering cauldron of class-based and ethnic animosities, more reminiscent of David Benioff’s The 25th Hour or Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. It is a place in which privileged whites treat underprivileged people of color with condescension and the latter respond with spasms of violence.
In a short book with few meanderings, it is no coincidence that the book’s two longest narrative cul de sacs explore socio-economic schisms (i.e., Gallin’s trip to a Foot Locker store to buy “old school” white-man sneakers while the store’s black and Latino staff argue in “tribal” dialects Galin barely understands; and Gallin’s visit to Miguel’s sweltering Harlem apartment after being stabbed by three black youths). Pretend All Your Life’s rough-hewn sociological underpinnings may remind readers of the urban pathos of HBO’s “The Wire.”
While Mackin shines a dystopian light into Manhattan’s darkest corridors, Pretend All Your Life is still an entertaining read. One reason is Mackin’s relentless clever phrasing: He wisecracks “the racket is only as good you swung it” when describing Gallin’s country squire lifestyle earned by peddling faux youth to vain Manhattanites (leaving the reader to wonder how Mackin is employing the term ”racket”). A stretch of cobblestone street is described as “English teeth” for its unevenness. In a similar vein, Pretend All Your Life is not stuffy or overly long. This is one of only a few books (J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians and Sherman Alexie’s Flight come to mind), that strike the balance between alighting difficult truths and telling a good story briskly.
For all of Mackin’s interest in creating a believable book with realistic characters, he succumbs to a rather incredible set of coincidences to move his plot along. Bernardo is spotted by Gallin’s mentor just days before Gallin’s mentor (literally) bumps into Gallin on a crowded street. Would-be extortionist, Nick Adams happens upon Gallin’s townhouse at the precise moment of Bernardo’s exit; Adams, who has never met Bernardo, recognizes him despite distance and disguise. Gallin, after being stabbed on the edge of Harlem, is rescued when Miguel happens upon his prone body the day after their brief meeting at a midtown Foot Locker.
Gallin wanders aimlessly north from Ground Zero and bumps into his romantic interest, Ann Garibaldi, as she is on her way to mail him a wistful letter. Fiction readers are supposed to indulge the author a little bit of the fantastic, but Mackin requests too much of this from his readers. The over-reliance on incredible coincidence is irksome in a book that is otherwise so powerfully realistic.
Pretend All Your Life is a book that proves what we’ve always preached about novels to our unconverted friends. At their best, novels ensnare the reader with a powerful story, make us care about the characters, and illustrate greater truths about of the world around us. Pretend All Your Life does all of this.
For readers looking for a good story, this is a clever little book with a thriller-paced plot. For readers looking to understand the problems in America’s big cities, this is a close-to-the-bone examination of the chasms that exist within densely-packed Manhattan.
Not since Sherman Alexie’s Indian Killer has this reviewer come across a novel that meets the needs of both kinds of readers so well, and not since Don DeLillo’s Falling Man has an author so successfully used the 9/11 catastrophe as a narrative device for probing the good, the bad, and ugly of Manhattan. This is a very satisfying book.