While slogging through some 450 pages of "Metropolis", the reader may wonder exactly what Elizabeth Gaffney is trying to convey in this plodding saga of post-Civil War New York City. At its core, it is the tale of a young German immigrant on the lam after being framed in the arson of P.T. Barnum's American Museum. He soon finds himself in the throws of the "Whyos", a secret Irish gang of New York's infamous Five Points, through which he finds work first on a road crew, later as a sewer man of New York's famed subterranean maze, and finally as a member of the construction crew building the Brooklyn Bridge. Such ambitious fare certainly holds much promise for the historical novel fan, but Gaffney clutters the plot and the history with a ham handed dose of feminism and related social topics. To make matters worse, the utopian Whyos who, we are to believe, have maintained their stealth and secrecy by communicating through a complex language of song. While Gaffney portrays the Whyos as tough and ruthless, these ludicrous singing bandits seem closer to "The West Side Story" than to "The Gangs of New York." Our young German hero - let's call him Frank Harris - the last of his several aliases - falls in love with the redoubtable Beatrice: pickpocket, whore, sometime murderer, and mol of the Whyos boss. But in Gaffney's New York, girls like Beatrice are the salt of society, the true brains and fabric of both legal and illegal New York, held back only by men and the puritanical Victorian social mores of the day.
The book could have survived all of this, were it not for Gaffney's total lack of atmosphere, suspense, or pace in the story. Fires, explosions, murders, are conveyed with the drama of a Brooklyn Bridge machinery technical manual, and while despite endless pages describing the thoughts and feeling of Frank and Beatrice, they stir as much inspiration as a trip with Gaffney through New York's sewers.
From the breathless praise lavished by Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and others, "Metropolis" was a novel I was really looking forward to devouring. It is unfortunate that this book was so well received critically, but I suspect the reviewers were more enthralled with Gaffney's oh-so politically correct social commentary than in any true literary or entertainment talent. Boring, disjointed, and unfocused, in the final analysis "Metropolis" is a good book to leave on the trolley.