Nicholas Rinaldi's third novel, Between Two Rivers, out this month from HarperCollins, kept getting sidelined and derailed, both by its author's tangent-prone research and by world-shattering events. Like a wayward child, it would not emerge from its developmental process into a finished product.
Rinaldi himself is a late starter. At 70, a stocky man of medium build, his gently graying but receding hair augmented by a mustache and trim goatee, he has spent most of his career as a professor (currently at Connecticut's Fairfield University). Three volumes of poetry and two previous novels established his reputation for literary work but not for speed. As Rinaldi tells it, his hands active in the conversation and his native Brooklyn active in his diction, the idea of assembling a group of disparate characters and watching them interact took root when he first read Chaucer as an undergraduate during the 1950s. The concept crystallized in the early 1990s, when he strolled around Manhattan's Battery Park where the island narrows between the East River and the Hudson, and decided that his novel's setting would be one of the condominiums that were being constructed in the shadow of the World Trade Center. He had a hazy idea that the 1993 explosion in the towers would be part of the plot, but he was more interested in creating characters—the bedrock of his fiction, he emphasizes—than dramatizing the terrorist event.
As he began to flesh out the backgrounds of some of his characters, tenants of the fictitious condominium he called Echo Towers, his mind was emotionally occupied by a World War II vet he named Rocco Raven. "Rocco had to have a war record. Malta popped into my head; that was the time of the Maltese falcon." An obsessive researcher, Rinaldi became so fascinated with the island's history that he shelved his draft about the residents of Echo Towers and created Rocco's story in the widely praised The Jukebox Queen of Malta, published in 1999.
Meanwhile, the characters pursuing their lives in Echo Towers lived on in limbo. Rinaldi returned to the book with renewed zest, only to face a more cataclysmic problem. "The Twin Towers came down just as I was finishing it. I wasn't yet at the ending. Of course, I had to go back and rework the whole thing. But the real problem I faced was: did I really want to do that? Was it seemly to write about that tragedy?"
In the crisis, Rinaldi's agents Nat Sobel and Judith Weber were pillars of strength. "They held my hand." When he determined to finish the novel, it was not only the path of the narrative that had to be redesigned; all the details had to be accurate. "How many stairs were there and where? How many elevators?" The stories in the New York Times were his prime documentary source as he refashioned the narrative arc. Reflecting the shattering reality of 9/11, the graphic, fluently written last section of the novel is especially gripping because the characters have been so well established in the earlier part of the novel.
Rinaldi is a philosophic man, well aware of life's ironies. His modest home in a suburb near the university (he and his wife, also a university professor, "scaled down" after their four children married) contains a view any writer would envy for its serenity. It overlooks a tidal estuary called Ash Creek, where herring gulls and cormorants swoop, the sun plays on placid waters and local fishermen troll for a catch. But all is not perfect; motorcycles frequently disturb the scene, Rinaldi says ruefully. It's an illustration of the element of imbalance that he perceives in nature and tries to reflect in all his fiction.
"I want to show that modern life is unbalanced and nonsymmetrical. We yearn for order and harmony, but reality is otherwise," he says. In Between Two Rivers, this theme is combined with the metaphor of life as a journey, as the characters search for connection with each other and for identity in its essence and its surface guises. One of the important characters is a plastic surgeon who transforms patients' faces and bodies. He also reinvents them completely in sex-change operations.
"It struck me that everything is changing in this world. The stable ways of thinking are up for grabs." Although the narrative of Between Two Rivers focuses on a dozen or more residents of Echo Towers, the cleaning staff, and others who do business there, it is far removed from the conventional romantic novel where apartment dwellers live and meet. For one thing, Rinaldi's characters are international in origin and ethnicity. There's a German who flew with the Luftwaffe, a Muslim family from Iraq, men who were born in Egypt and Japan. (Rinaldi says that his own extended family has made him more than comfortable with a contemporary melting pot. One of his daughters-in-law comes from Egypt; another is Chinese, born in Peru; there are Native American, Jewish and African-American offspring among the third generation of Rinaldi's family.) The uptight concierge, Farro Fescu, an émigré from Rumania via Serbia, is determined to preserve the condo's genteel ambiance and reputation, threatened by such new arrivals as a drugged-out clothing designer and a promiscuous rock star.
Integral to the narrative are the deliberate echoes that Rinaldi creates between characters and scenes. His face lights up as he reviews them for PW, lest the reader have missed them. His character's lives circle and reflect each other. Two characters meet on a bench facing the river; later, two other characters reach connection there. Trains are significant for several characters. A funeral canoe from New Guinea makes a strange voyage. A tycoon supplies pizza for Augusto Pinochet; one of the dictator's henchmen becomes a candidate for plastic surgery. "I built in all those echoes. That's the fun part for me," he says.
The real fun, it is obvious to any reader of Rinaldi's fiction, are the gems of facts that stud his narratives like buried treasure brought to the surface. In Between Two Rivers he creates an almost visual map of lower Manhattan's streets, stores and neighborhoods, everything just the way it was in the early '90s. The geography had to be perfect, he says. Since one of the characters is distantly related to Theodore Roosevelt, we get a description of the servants' rooms at Sagamore Hill. Details about liposuction, the manufacture of fireworks and the habits of exotic animals become part of the plot. Each character listens to a different kind of music, from Vivaldi to Ravel to rock.
Music is the easy part. He must fully imagine every scene before he writes it, to the placement of every chair, table and picture on the wall, Rinaldi says. "I may not use most of it, but I'm not comfortable during the writing unless I have 100% of the details and can select from them." Therein lies the roadblock to Rinaldi's productivity as a writer. His obsessive need to discover every bit of background detail results in epiphanic moments that give him as much pleasure as the writing itself. "I like to dive right in," he says. "Jackie [his wife] always says, what's taking so long? But that's the satisfaction for me."
When a fact search generates a side trip, Rinaldi goes with the flow. Having jettisoned the first draft of Between Two Rivers to follow his character Rocco Raven, he plunged into research about the German-Italian siege of Malta. To his delight, the New York Public Library had a trove of RAF records. A copy of every aerial log was there: which flyers flew which missions; who was in the air at any given time. Rinaldi memorialized those air heroes by giving their real names to their counterparts in the novel, with the exception of one particularly eccentric hot shot who is sui generis.
But it was Malta's important history as a crossroads in the Mediterranean that drew Rinaldi deep into original sources. The tunnels dug in limestone by Neolithic inhabitants have modern counterparts in the tunnels dug by the British forces. As he wrote, Rinaldi relied on photographs, but eventually he realized he'd have to visit the island. He finally made the trip in 1991. "By that time, I knew what I didn't know. How wide is Strait Street? Can you drive a car down it—and how small must that car be?" He and his wife spent a week in Malta, "going around with my tape measure." Among the facts he learned from a taxi driver is that brothels are often a family affair on Malta, with prostitutes, often sisters and cousins, living with their friendly manager and his family.
Among the unexpected dividends of that book were the letters from readers who had lived through the events Rinaldi described. He cites a scene where General Rommel is about to surrender because the supply ship bringing petrol for his tanks has been sunk by the British. A soldier runs up the beach and tells Rommel that they are saved: the oil drums are rolling in with the surf. Rinaldi got a letter from a former German soldier who had been on the beach that day. He verified that Rinaldi had got it exactly right. He also heard from people who had lived in shelters during the war, as did the residents of Malta during the bombardment. They told him that he had reflected the experience as if he had lived it himself.
His creative leap in making jukeboxes the central metaphor in the novel was merely logical, he says. "There was a siege. Nothing was coming in—no food, certainly no new jukeboxes." Zammit, the Herculean character who creates them, is almost surrealistic, reflecting in his own person the absurdity of the war. His jukebox designs begin conventionally, then gradually evolve into baroque masterpieces. Zammit's final creation, the Mother-of-God Madonna jukebox, is central to Rinaldi's concept. The author pulls the novel from his bookcase and reads a passage aloud: "...This time Zammit had gone too far, beyond all reason and plausibility.... He had abandoned whatever sense of order, harmony, or symmetry that may have been present in his earlier work.... It drew from too many sources, was a thing too grand. It was greedy, gluttonous in its desire to be all things, a compendium of time remembered and forgotten." Rinaldi says, so quietly that one might miss it, "I felt that's what I was doing in my novel. I was reaching out in all these directions. I was getting too grand." It's a poignant confession from a writer who questions his limits. Reviewers of Malta did not confirm his fears, of course, and, at long last, there may be a movie in the works.
Rinaldi's tendency toward the surreal found its first expression in his first novel, Bridge FallDown. Though he had not served in Vietnam, the war permeated his consciousness, and he chose that setting for a fantasy war in a jungle, with scenes that included a grand piano being lowered from a helicopter for a concert. He says he probably won't indulge that surrealistic urge again. "It's OK for Marquez, but hard to sell if you're an American writer." With professorial agility, he cites Herman Melville: "In The Confidence Man, Melville is plainly worried about the rise of realism. In one sense, he's a consummate realist—think of his descriptions of whales and whaling. But he has decided that nature must be transformed."
That's the crux of Rinaldi's writing philosophy. He speaks in a hushed voice as he explains that for him, the base is always research to get the facts right and then to transform them. To reach for something that is part of real life and then to add magic.
Real life intervenes with a ringing telephone. Gravity gives way to a face wreathed in smiles. It's Rinaldi's publicist confirming that the New York Times will run a review of Between Two Rivers. Rinaldi praises the HarperCollins crew, especially his editor, Dan Conaway. He credits his London editor, Bill Scott-Kerr, with the book's stunning cover. The original galley showed a prosaic view of apartment house mailboxes. Suggesting both majesty and portent, the new jacket photo is an architectural view of Manhattan as it appeared before the carnage on 9/11. The buildings stand tall; a shaft of sunlight weaves a gleaming path through the river.
What one of his characters calls the "frantic unpredictability of human existence" can be sensed in a seemingly immutable but tragically vulnerable landscape. It's important to Rinaldi, however, that the book not be sold as a 9/11 novel. "It's focused on characters. It's an optimistic book. This is how life hits you. In the face of terrible catastrophe, people go on."