There’s a teeming subgenre of the New York Novel propagated by would-be descendants of Tom Wolfe and Richard Price, white male writers blindingly enamored with our glittering hellscape, where people of all colors and incomes actually brush shoulders on public transit and in pizza shops. Unlike Wolfe and Price, these writers aren’t really concerned with the machinations churning under the surface of our groaning metropolis. Rather, their tapestries are panoramas of whimsy and wonder, bird’s-eye-views of the city-as-character which dictates the fates of dreamers who seek its shores. Ensemble casts’ personal stocks rise and fall like elevator cars until finally the dealmakers, artists, strivers, lowlifes, cops, and robbers find themselves improbably cordoned into the same narrative conveyance—usually somewhere in Brooklyn—so that the sparks may fly. After all, if history’s proven anything, it’s that New York City (New! York! City!) is unsustainable.
Brian Platzer’s debut Bed-Stuy Is Burning is the latest buzzy borough-based social parable—Christopher Herz’s hilariously slapdash The Last Block in Harlem comes immediately to mind—that posits white gentrifiers as compelling and sympathetic narrators. They’re not, of course, especially when placed before the backdrop of a police shooting of a 12-year-old black kid, the event which sets their titular neighborhood ablaze.
Platzer’s setup is inauspicious enough, introducing a rainbow coalition of seemingly at-random types who’ve gathered here today to get through this thing called gentrification. Aaron, an ex-rabbi working in finance, is the Man Who’s Done A Bad Thing, crippled by remorse and a gambling addiction. He and his girlfriend Amelia have just bought an old house in Bed-Stuy and settled in with their first child. Bed-Stuy, as you may have heard, is “the home of Chris Rock, the Notorious B.I.G., and Jay-Z,” and in this book it is a neighborhood whose only physical characteristic is “brownstones.” The couple rents out the basement apartment to an underemployed NRA member and his wife, who is “Asian and very skinny.”
They hire a nanny, Antoinette, a Jamaican single mother who studies Christianity, Islam, and Judaism with equal, childlike zeal because she just likes spirituality. “Muslims believed Abraham was a prophet, too,” she reasons. “Abraham and Jesus both.” Their neighbor Jupiter comes over a lot, and we know he’s one of the Good Black People because he’s a father and a homeowner and an electrician, even though he spends most of his scenes preying on Antoinette while she tries to do her job. Antoinette and Jupiter are unique among Bed-Stuy Is Burning’s black characters in that they actually seem somewhat capable of managing their primal impulses to wreak physical destruction; they’re both lovesick magical negroes, and we know they’re meant for each other, because blackness.
Initial chapters contrast the respective plights of our millionaire protagonists, who sure are anxious about the tension in this little here neighborhood they’ve bought into, and their project-dwelling black neighbors, who are systematically executed by the NYPD. The cops shoot a local black kid carrying a video game controller, and after a long day of fiery violence, the bloodthirsty rioters reach Aaron and Amelia’s house. Aaron’s at the racetrack, but Amelia, Antoinette, and Jupiter are inside with the baby. Jupiter, the Black Christ figure, gets shot and killed defending the white neighbors, a rioter named Sara rushes into the house to hide from the police, and Amelia (who writes cover stories for major lifestyle magazines but is just as happy to offer her talents to the neighborhood real estate blog) creates a hostage situation in hopes of turning it into ASME award bait.
Aaron eventually makes his way back from Belmont Park to find a dead man in his foyer, and summons his ex-rabbi strength to make an impassioned plea for reason and clemency from the hostile crowd that’s assembled. He actually likens the black rioters outside his home to the Sodomites at Lot’s house in the Old Testament, (“‘Lot’s family is overrun by an angry mob.’ Aaron let that phrase linger. He let the crowd hear itself be compared to the mob of Sodomites”) but they don’t take it personally, and he staves them off until the police show up. The denouement involves Amelia and her hostage, who leaves with the agreement that Amelia hire her to help “research” her magazine feature. Sara, who doubles as the Token Gay, doesn’t do much besides break furniture, but their parasitic relationship enables Amelia to profiteer off the murder in her house and Platzer to construct a vague conclusion, even though Amelia declares that she is herself “the hero of the story.”
Even in matters of simple exposition, Platzer makes hamfisted blunders. Jupiter is described as “an older, overweight, black Ben Affleck,” whereas the Marcy Projects are “space buildings for black people who’d never be educated out of them.” The real-life Bill Bratton narrates a chapter, allowing the author to show how down he is by presenting broken windows policing in a negative light. Even Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a cameo at an NYPD presser, as if to suggest that Platzer’s mere awareness of Coates lends legitimacy to his story. There’s a halfhearted biblical allegory going on between characters named Sara, Aaron, Simon, and Damien, but the book is rife with inexplicable grotesqueries: Amelia sends Aaron a Snapchat of Jupiter’s corpse, and has a flashback to laughing as the towers fell on 9/11.
The characters, black and white alike, are equally repellant and motiveless. Aaron, a selfish, impulsive lout, is somehow the most sympathetic, and his rich-people problems of work, faith, and fatherhood are afforded detail granted none of the characters of color. The scope of this 326-page book is also so absurdly ponderous that it results in hasty pencil sketches on a life-size canvas. In free moments, each of the main characters desperately seeks to patch a tattered relationship with God, until they remember they have to profile Jonah Hill for Esquire or bake a marshmallow cake for the Caribbean temptress nursing the white baby next door. There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with domestic or religious drama, but to use black trauma as a narrative hook is cruel and disingenuous. Platzer’s exploration of millionaires’ woes is grossly inappropriate in a novel about police brutality—Simon and Amelia seek a home in Bed-Stuy as much for its amenities as, shall we say, its “color,” but the ignorant, philandering black characters are mere inconveniences and curiosities until they show up dead on the floor.
Simon & Schuster cites The Bonfire of the Vanities and Do the Right Thing as aspirational referents; Richard Price’s Lush Life is another natural touchstone given its collision of black, white, and blue upon a battleground of gentrifying New York. But the critical distinction is that these works grant dignity to the victims of urban renewal, making their flaws and anger human rather than typical. At Platzer’s hand even the perpetrators and bystanders are somehow victims, and they receive more headspace than the people getting shot and maced.
Tom Wolfe and Richard Price’s cities can feel counterfeit, too—as writers, they’re far too self-impressed and self-obsessed, with far too much youth and hip-hop and humanity bastardized by their old white keyboards. But not unlike a good sci-fi universe, their books clearly establish logical and ethical consistencies, stakes and rules which allow for controlled, resonant experiments in a literary lab environment. In Wolfe’s city, everyone is his own brand of lurid, self-interested thief, each character’s success to that end dictated by the footholds of his birth. When Price turns his gaze upon a lockup, classroom, or subway car, he sees basically good, even heroic people effectively robbed of free will. In Bed-Stuy Is Burning, Platzer looks at the garish megalopolis that produced both Donald Trump and Eric Garner but can’t even bring himself to posit that level of moral ambiguity. His is a blind, valueless sweepstakes: many will enter, few will win.
The most dramatic scenes of Bed-Stuy Is Burning present a garbled treatise on fatalism and free will. When rioters besiege the brownstone, Antoinette envelops the baby in religious texts and rapturously declares, “We decide our own lives!” Commissioner Bratton, on the other hand, “judged a man by what that man could control, and and a man could not control his thoughts, and a man could not control the color of his skin or the religion he was born into.” During her hostage negotiation, Amelia shoots at Sara with a borrowed gun, hugs her, and attempts to bribe her in quick succession. After shooting one of the rioters outside, the gun-crazy neighbor from downstairs contemplates quitting his job at a private university to teach at a public school: “If he had the confidence to shoot one of them, he should be able to teach them with confidence—confidence that he was sure their other white teachers lacked,” as if African-Americans were puppies who could be cycled through obedience school.
Gentrification is an issue which fully merits a novel’s documentation and consideration; it is, in many respects, the story of our modern cities. But with Bed-Stuy Is Burning, Platzer uses the infamous deaths of Tamir Rice and Sean Bell as hooks for a meditation on Jewish-American guilt. His black characters are impetuous, haphazard, and unorganized, so incapable of examining or articulating their own motives that they need white people to do it for them. But ultimately, like his protagonists, Platzer can’t help but throw up his hands in a gesture of All Lives Matter.