Review: ‘Why We Came to the City’ by Kristopher Jansma

Why We Came to the City. Kristopher Jansma. Viking. 422 pages. $27.
Why We Came to the City. Kristopher Jansma. Viking. 422 pages. $27.

A brilliant stylist whose first novel The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards won the Sherwood Anderson Foundation Award, Kristopher Jansma draws readers into an intricate web of lives in the big city in his astonishing new work. He writes with power and passion about a loving quartet of friends and one hopeful outsider, all restless twentysomethings building new lives in New York.

Jansma explains early on what motivates them: “We came to the city because we wished to live haphazardly, to reach for only the least realistic of our desires, and to see if we could not learn what our failures had to teach, and not, when we came to live, discover that we had never died. We wanted to dig deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to be overworked and reduced to our last wit.”

Why We Came to the City is Jansma’s love song to Manhattan, to youth and to the lovely, bisexual artist Irene. With her mysterious past, Irene is the magnet whose tragedy pushes the group into territory they never wanted to explore. The others are Jacob, the blocked poet; pretty, conventional Sara, Irene’s WASPy best friend; and Sara’s fiancé George, an astronomer whose great discovery threatens to evaporate.

And then there’s the outsider. Long forgotten by his classmates, William Cho is still in love with Irene. Impeccably tailored, in headlong flight from his domineering mother, he turns up at a midnight hot tub party on the roof of the Waldorf. Everybody strips naked and jumps into the hot tub except inhibited William. But before the night’s over, he takes the plunge. In life — as in fiction and some movies — this is the moment called The Last Good Time.

A compassionate narrator, Jansma inhabits his characters, thinking what they think and feeling what they feel so compellingly that he pulls the reader into the story and won’t let go.

The novel begins with the love affairs — the characters’ romance with the city, Irene’s passion for life and art, William’s fixation with Irene. Then Irene is diagnosed with cancer, which blows their world apart. All five fix on the diagnosis, the treatment, Irene’s progress, the exigencies.

Laying out the group dynamic, Jansma writes: “Whenever someone was missing, that person almost instantly became the subject of speculation, criticism, and suspicion. It was as if the person’s absence left a hole in their mutual fabric, and the others couldn’t help but pull at the fraying threads around the hole, as if to say Something ought to be here. How has this happened?”

Although Irene is the magnet and Sara the fierce defender of order in the first part of the novel, lovestruck William and Jacob are the strongest characters, as becomes clear in the second part. Entitled “Why We Left The City,” it begins with another threnody.

“We left the city for good reasons, or at least they seemed good at the time. We had more lives to live and couldn’t spare any more time waiting for the G. train.... Anywhere else we might be anyone else, or maybe our long lost best selves were only a U-Haul ride away. We lay up at night, wondering, What sorts of people would we be if we were no longer nervous and afraid?”

Jacob, the blocked poet, is the central figure in the second part of the novel. He’s too profoundly bereft to see his friends. He is in stasis, living in Stamford with his lethargic lover Oliver and working in Oliver’s rehab center for adolescents in crisis. We live through Jacob’s winter as he deconstructs Homer’s Odyssey with a sensitive, highly intelligent bipolar teenager; she’s a poet too. Gradually, he puts himself back together. For the first time in years, he begins to write.

Sara and George are in Boston, where Sara obsesses over every detail of her coming wedding and George is settling into a new job at Harvard. William, meanwhile, has left his yuppie apartment and moved back in with his folks. Of all the group, he may be the most profoundly moved by Irene’s life, her enigmatic past and the extraordinary work of art she leaves behind, all of which lead William — and the reader — on a path to discovery and reconciliation.

Why We Came to the City is amazing precisely because of this reconciliation, which reveals the strength of character that can redeem even the weakest as they deal with grief. Jansma digs deeply into these characters. Reading this wonderful, unforgettable novel, we learn what they learn: the vocabulary of survival, which leads to profound questions about causes and what comes next.

Kit Reed’s latest novel is “Where.”