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A Company Of Rivers: New York and Shepard Rifkin

A Company Of Rivers: New York and Shepard Rifkin

It’s easy for the visitor to forget that New York City and  all its sunless canyons between skyscrapers are built on an island which is bounded by a multitude of rivers. Climbing any of those Babelous towers to the sky, you can see the Big Apple sitting in a great big bowl of noodles:  its waterways, which border and define the narrowness of Manhattan, and  helped to shape the city’s history. Until the day before yesterday it depended upon them. The sea brought New York its huddled migrant masses, but the waterways helped to give them life.

There is a writer, one who has never really had the recognition he deserves, called Shepard Rifkin, who in the course of penning a pacy thriller called McQuaid in August in effect made New  York City the main character, and in particular the rivers and waters which he knew so well. I want to digress a bit about Shepard Rifkin  before getting back to McQuaid in August (and also another book, the one that Rifkin never published).

The city, in the long hot summer when Rifkin set his book, was a chaotic, strife- and crime-torn melting pot, on the edge of bankruptcy, even though it was too early for out-of-control banksters (Wall Street still meant solid investment and gilt-edged gentleman’s guarantees, sealed on a handshake). A year or two before the book came out, New York had almost struck and polluted and rioted its way to hell. It was the city of The Warriors, of Taxi Driver and Mean Streets, of Hill Street Blues and Midnight Cowboy, CBGBs and the New York Dolls, Valerie Solanas shooting Andy Warhol and getting her fifteen minutes of fame; the New York of gun crime, of anti-Semitic riots and power outages, pre-Aids and post-Watergate, where Crazy Joe Gallo was gunned down by some other Mafiosi  in a Little Italy oyster bar and you took your goddam life in  your hands riding the subway or crossing the road, or (probably) asking one of New York’s Finest the time.

I only knew of Shepard Rifkin’s  existence through my father, the writer John Wain. Dad  lived for a while in Brooklyn Heights, that still rather peaceful village that looks down on the tip of Manhattan from an almost snooty height. He lived in a building where Auden also lived for a while, though not at the same time. (It was a right literary riot. The old man used to describe a party he was at, somewhere in the Five Boroughs, where Norman Mailer showed up and threw a fellow guest down the stairs.) He and Rifkin met in the late 1950s or early 1960s when they were both at something called a (or The)  MacDowell Colony.

From what I can gather a MacDowell Colony was a writers’ retreat, where sensitive penmen would go to renounce the world, for a week or a month, somewhere like upstate New York or Vermont, and write their asses off. I’m not sure whether this retreat was useful to either of them, since the old man functioned best when he was in the swim of things and I imagine Rifkin, chronicler of urban madness, was the same.  But they got on and shot the breeze together and became transatlantic penpals, though Rifkin never visited England.  Rifkin used to send the Wain household a signed copy of every one of his novels for many years afterwards and I used to read them all.

Shepard Rifkin’s first book was based on his experiences on a ship called the SS Ben Hecht, and here another  digression is in order.  In 1945 and the year or two afterwards, the British navy had in place a blockade off the coast of Palestine to prevent Jewish immigrants, many of them refugees from the death camps or Stalin’s oppressions, from reaching the coast of what was just becoming Israel . A Jewish movement, the Aliyah Bet, and its American supporters, bought whatever ships they could find, real tubs some of them, and set out to transport as many Jews to Palestine as they could get ashore.

One of these ships was the SS Abril, built (ironically) as a plaything for Hermann Goering in 1931, and  renamed for the Jewish writer  Ben Hecht. Hecht, who wrote that he was not a political animal until the news of the Holocaust began filtering through to the USA – as he puts it,  ‘I was walking down the street one day when I bumped into history’ – helped publicize the fate of  Jews in occupied Europe to a disbelieving and apathetic American public. In 1947 he wrote A Flag is Born to raise money for the cause of Jewish Israel. The play  was a big hit on Broadway, helped by a fine performance from an almost unknown young actor called Marlon Brando.

As a young man Shepard Rifkin, fresh from a dangerous stint in the wartime Merchant Marine, served as an AB, an Able(bodied) Seaman on the ship which he calls in the novel the Santa Maria del Mare but was actually the SS Abril / SS Ben Hecht. His book about this experience, What Ship? Where Bound?  is hardboiled and staccato,  told as if the writer is talking round a cigar clenched in his teeth. The first two thirds of the story is like a seafaring yarn and has plenty to offer fans of such fiction, full of visits to brothels, heartless practical jokes, and terse dialogue about whisky and boxing. But Rifkin is just softening us up for a sucker punch with all that testosterone. The crew, and the reader, suddenly and movingly become aware of the plight of the dispossessed Jewish refugees who come aboard in southern France: concentration camp survivors, crowded six hundred strong onto a boat meant for a few dozen, carrying suitcases full of tinned food,  desperate to start again in a Jewish homeland. The ending, as a British destroyer intercepts  the Santa Maria del Mare  within sight of the coast of Palestine, is almost downbeat, coming as soft as a small boat running ashore on a Mediterranean beach; an  anticlimax, perhaps like all history. You are left with a real sense of waste and loss at the end of this fine book.

I don’t know a lot about Shepard Rifkin’s life, but I know that like my pop he earned a living by writing:  the Wain family had the evidence on the shelves. Another of his novels, fully the equal of What Ship… is The Murderer Vine, based (at least to start with) more or less on the real-life events told in  the film Mississippi Burning : the three boys, two black and one white, beaten to death and buried in the rural South during the Civil Rights era. Rifkin’s hero is  Joe Dunne, a  NYC private eye, monosyllabic in a Raymond Chandler kinda way,  who goes undercover for a staggering reward offered by the rich father of the missing white boy. Initially Dunne takes on the case purely for the money, but is soon drawn into the stifling and violent world of the Segregated South.

Rifkin handles the development of the story most adroitly : Dunne’s growing anger at the violence, the oppression, the inhuman treatment given to the black community (nicely contrasted with the old world Southern Plantation manners of the whites who welcome Dunne into their social circle) is  just left to simmer until it finally boils over. Dunne finds the culprits, takes his well-rewarded revenge, and then finds out he has to pay a price so high that the rest of his life is lived out, far from New York, in a remorseful alcoholic blur.

Shepard Rifkin went on to earn a crust by writing Western thrillers under another name :  effective  and well researched genre paperbacks set on the post Civil War frontier, bristling with brutal Apaches, rattlesnakes and sinister Mexicans. You’re guaranteed one torture scene, one sex scene, three punchups and a gunfight per book, against a backdrop of arroyo, mescal, he and she and the lone prairie.  Always more than you sign on for with Rifkin, though : his knowledge of the American Southwest shimmers through the writing like the heat rising off the Arizona desert floor in midsummer.  If he tells you that a certain desert plant grew everywhere, a certain Indian tribe rode the lands, or a certain issue rifle fired a certain bullet in that time and place then it was so. It’s the historical detail which brings the action to life.

Sometime in the 1970s Rifkin began a short series of detective stories about the New York-Irish cop Damian McQuaid. McQuaid foils a murderous jewel thief in the eponymous first book; the hero has another outing  in The Snow Rattlers, largely set on the Indian Reservations of the American southwest. Both, especially The Snow Rattlers, are full of good things, but it is the third  McQuaid book which I want (finally) to return to.

McQuaid in August is  genre fiction again (but again goes beyond it), nicely plotted, with a complex and well-drawn villain who slays McQuaid’s lover while the detective sleeps off some Tom Collinses on the couch in her apartment.  McQuaid sets out to solve the murder, on his own and off the clock, stalking the sweltering streets in an itchy false beard, grimly sitting on his grief at his lover’s death until he can get his hands on the man who killed her.  Plenty of terse dialogue in this book too:

[Cop on the waterfront sub-aqua quad talking about the East River, off Manhattan] : And every morning, sharp at 11.00 –

[McQuaid, contemplating a solo dive in those waters to retrieve a dumped murder weapon]: I don’t think I want to hear this, Eddie.

‘At 11.00 a.m.’, Eddie went on relentlessly, ‘The World Trade Centre flushes all its toilets at once.  Why people want to go to the Statue of Liberty when they have that colourful spectacle all for free I don’t know. ‘

At the climax of the story McQuaid finds himself thirty feet down, trapped in an abandoned circus cage at the bottom of the East River at  night, waiting for a Norwegian cargo ship to chop his boat up into small chunks.  (You’ll have to read the book.) It’s tense and pacy, but the story really comes alive when talking about the waterways of New York City. Rifkin almost induces a thirst in the reader, who might be sitting in Britain in December with the central heating jacked up to the max: the wet stuff is the only respite from the August heat of Manhattan, the crazies, the fire hydrants exploding with water, the almost fantastic rudeness of people in 100 degrees of muggy air; the hooligans hanging round the fringes of the old Brooklyn Navy Yard, waiting to mug plainclothes detectives. Once again the writer’s familiarity with his subject shines through, and this time the material is the waterways that stretch all the way from the abandoned ships’ graveyard at Arthur Kill to the peaceful bounds of Long Island Sound, where the teeming neighbourhoods of NYC might as well be a vulgar daydream to the rich sailing their yachts on the shining water.

Reading McQuaid In August as a teenager, long before I’d even seen New York, I came to know the The Hudson River, where people have been known to land malfunctioning airliners;  the Harlem River, whose steel swing bridges sometimes expand so much in the New York summers that they can’t open or close; the East River, actually a tidal reach of the sea, which used to catch fire in the bad old polluted 1970’s. I explored the islands, of which Ellis Island and its Museum of immigration is the most famous; Governor’s Island, which the wife of a long-gone city chief had planted with roses; Riker’s Island, home of the notorious  prison. with McQuaid’s boat I nosed the inlets from the sea with names like Sheepshead Bay, or Jamaica Bay, home to a lovely wildlife sanctuary. Something for everyone, in NYC.

When I came to New  York I was fascinated, too, by the bridges which criss-cross the water: Brooklyn’s steel span, which I walked over one September day in 2008 while the world’s banking system teetered on the edge of collapse; the Williamsburg Bridge, most cycled-over bridge in North America; the Manhattan Bridge with its Triumphal Arch (what?); the George Washington Bridge, a favoured suicide spot, unless you actually WANT to go to New Jersey. From Brooklyn Heights, which has the best view of Manhattan sunsets, you can just make out in the other direction the huge suspension bridge over the Verrazano Narrows, the entrance to Manhattan harbour where that Italian explorer sailed in off the Atlantic and became the first European to see New York. They named the bridge after him, or at least after the Narrows.

One more thing about Shephard Rifkin: the title I would most like to have read is the one which seems never to have seen the light of day, although he refers to it in as a work in progress in the blurb for one of his other books. Perhaps he couldn’t find a publisher for it, or it was unfinished for some other reason. This book  was going to be a study of the longshoremen and river workers, the boatmen and the characters of the docks. The unborn book had a working title: A  Company Of Rivers. Company as in a company of actors,  or of soldiers, and from there to the fellowship of the watermen, now dwindling I suppose, who live on and live by the waterways. Like that book, which was floated but never launched, we are the poorer for not knowing that company.

Update: Shepard Rifkin died in Washington D.C. on July 4, 2011. There is a good short biography here – including mention of his being torpedoed in the Atlantic while serving in the Merchant Marine. 

NOTES The Ben Hecht / Abril –  Santa Maria Del Mare is still afloat, as a ferry from the Italian mainland to the island of Capri.

Hill Street Blues was the forerunner to NYPD Blue. It had one of the same producers,  Steven Bochco (Michael Kozoll was the other) and pioneered the hand-held camera work and dizzying refocuses of the later drama.  Years after watching it, secure in my assumption that it was set in New York, I’ve found out that it was a fictional city based on Chicago where it was, I think, filmed. Ah, fuggedaboudit – it’ll always be New York to me.

I am indebted to Judith Rice for her article on the SS Ben Hecht at :

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