Crazy Sorrow

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

CRAZY SORROW is a gripping and memorable New York novel, one that captures the heart and soul, the agony and the ecstasy, of the city in a captivating way. Part love story, part history, part elegy, it opens on July 4, 1976 when New York is celebrating America’s bi-centennial. George Langland, a Columbia University student, meets Anna Goff, a fetching young Barnard gal, in a riverside park near the twin towers of the World Trade Center. They were there “for the fireworks, which came in culmination of a long, decent day, absent so far as they knew the customary lies and assassinations–-a day full of tall ships on the river and barbecues and beer on its banks.”

They fall in love and what follows over the next 447 pages is an account of their relationship as it takes place over four decades. They marry, have affairs, split, marry other people, have children, split once more, only to meet again and rekindle their love. All this occurs against the backdrop of the immense, hard-charging city: Son of Sam, violence in the streets, blackouts, Guiliani, Reagan, anti-war demonstrations, a drug epidemic. But New York was also a city of love and joy, art and culture: the Village Voice, museums, theatre, movies (at the Thalia and The New Yorker), books, punk, New Wave. Also key was the sex, of which there is a great deal in CRAZY SORROW. Anna turns out to be just as sexually liberated and independent as George is (“I can’t stand the feeling of being owned,” she tells him).

The story takes place in the shadows of the WTC towers, whose presence is felt throughout. Anna even ends up working at the WTC. Having left the non-profit field to become a lawyer, she takes a job (in 2000) as compliance officer at a firm that handles legal problems for Morgan Stanley. That her firm was “basically fucking evil could not be denied,” she admits to herself. It was being paid not to tell MS what it couldn’t do, but to “find a way to do it.” But as she was earning well over three hundred thousand dollars a year, she decides to keep her mouth shut and go with the flow.

George was also making big bucks. After having worked a series of low-wage jobs, he had found employment on a coffee truck. Soon his boss realized that he could sell more coffee in a permanent spot than he could while shunting around the city. He opened a coffee-house in the East Village, “one of those places that popped up in your neighborhood. It was scary dead for the first three weeks and then it picked up quickly.” Over the next ten years, Brown & Co. (the company name) grew exponentially, not just in New York but everywhere in the USA–-and even overseas. George, now a partner, soon “had more money than was good for him.”

George and Anna are two quintessential New Yorkers: smart, tough and cynical. They’ve been wounded by life, fallen in and out of love, questioned their own values, fought to hold on to their humanity. When they reconnect in middle age it was with much trepidation. They had hurt each other in the past and were afraid of repeating the experience. It made them hesitant and vulnerable. Yet their rekindled love became strong and satisfying, the sex as well.

Then came 9/11/2001. Anna went to work early that day and was up on the 67th floor when the WTC was attacked. What follows is Passaro’s vivid and memorable re-creation of that tragic event, a description of the death, horror and destruction that ensued. George rushes to Ground Zero and watches as the North Tower crumbles, with Anna in it. “He could not take in that she was gone,” the author writes. “Could not apprehend it. Or could he understand that she was gone, that he wouldn’t see her again, that his grief would entail split-second memories, flash images, followed by suppression and pain; what he could not internalize was that she was gone, in there, in that.”

CRAZY SORROW ends fifteen years later, when George is sixty and finds himself talking to Anna in his head...and realizing that “there would always be sorrow, like stones in a sack; and there would always be loss.” He then thinks about dying, “not in a bad way, just in a knowing way; this is what life’s later phases contained, this solid knowledge. Despite his fears and weaknesses, he knew he endured it; just endured it, most human beings, almost all-–endured it and distracted from it with love and desire and hope. To die, whether by one’s own hand or fate’s, was to relinquish those things. And so we continue to endure it, all of it, all the suffering and loss and the passages of despair, the dying itself-–endure it and endure it and endure it–-until that moment of severing mercy when all the enduring is done.”