Floating City: A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York’s Underground Economy

Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, Author
Sudhir Venkatesh. Penguin Press, $27.95 (276p) ISBN 978-1-59420-416-6
Paperback - 287 pages - 978-0-14-312579-2
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Crime and vice are the ties that bind an unlikely community of New Yorkers in this fascinating X-ray of the city. Columbia University sociologist Venkatesh (Gang Leader for a Day) profiles and befriends shady strivers, from immigrant porn-shop clerks working a kaleidoscope of illicit businesses to a Harlem drug dealer who supplies well-heeled white artists and hipsters. But Venkatesh focuses on the sex trade: ghetto streetwalkers; Ivy League grads moonlighting as call girls; smug Wall Street johns who insist their dalliances strengthen their marriages; and an heiress who sets herself up as a madam. Venkatesh’s engrossing narrative dissects the intricacies of illegal commerce and the subtle ways it both divides and entwines different classes and races, while painting rich, novelistic portraits of its participants and their dreams of self-reinvention. Meanwhile, he weathers his own identity crisis as he vacillates between voyeuristic journalism and scientific sociology. The latter is the book’s weakest element—sketchy pensées about globalization, entropy, and “the talent to use and lose improvised social ties”—and nothing that Fitzgerald or Tom Wolfe couldn’t tell you about. Fortunately, Venkatesh’s vivid prose, shrewd eye, and empathy make him a worthy successor to them as a chronicler of a city on the make. Agent: Suzanne Gluck, WME. (Sept.)
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