#14: Gotham, by Nick Earls (Wisdom Tree #1)

Yes, I’m slow, so very very slow—two years too late. Cargoes by Nick Earls was originally published in October 2015 as part of Griffith Review 50: The Novella Project III, and I’ve had it sitting on my e-reader since then. Now that I’m finally catching up on my Griffith Review subscription, here we are…

Since its appearance in Griffith Review, the novella was re-released as Gotham, part one of the Wisdom Tree series of five novellas published by Inkerman & Blunt. The innovative series has received wide attention and the third novella in the series, Vancouver, won the People’s Choice Award at the 2017 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.

I’ve been told there are some small sentence-level differences between the two versions, so I should be clear that I read the novella published as Cargoes, but I’ll refer to it using the newer title here since that’s how it is now most commonly known.

This novella is exactly what a novella should be. It couldn’t be anything else. It’s short, at just under 20,000 words and consists of only a few scenes, but this contained, tightly-structured surface hides great depth.

The protagonist, Jeff, is an Australian music journalist who’s come to New York to interview a nineteen-year-old hip hop star, Na$ti Boi. Earls opens the novella with back story, revealing that Jeff has been to New York before, and he name-drops The Ramones, David Byrne, Andy Warhol, Chris Isaak, Coldplay, and Bob Dylan, all in the first few pages. So, a music journalist with wide tastes, but is it even about taste? Some way into his allotted time with Na$ti (which spans their initial meeting in Bloomingdales, a drive in his van, a brief stop, and dinner), Jeff considers Na$ti’s life and thinks:

It would be implausible to him that I don’t want to be him, that I am living a life I could want more than this. A life in a suburb across the world, a remortgaged house, responsibilities, routines. Routines and the people in them are what makes up a life, and are not the grim sentence he might think. It would shock him to learn that I am in his van, writing this piece, solely for the money.

The realities of freelance life in post-internet late-late capitalism come jutting up against the needy consumption of Na$ti, who’s found fame at a young age, and splashes money around to find self-worth. Jeff has “sold and re-sold” the interview, trying to milk his short time with Na$ti for as many pieces of paid writing as he can. They meet in Bloomingdale’s, where Na$ti is being served by personal shoppers, bringing the ‘real’ world and the faux celebrity world into contrast; Nick Earls makes this contrast fluidly, expertly, but it’s the underlying thread of family life that stirs each of the characters and shows what’s truly central not just to this novella, but to human lives in general.

Na$ti’s handler, Smokey, is his second cousin and spends most of the time distracted by his phone—we learn that he should be elsewhere, with his wife. Jeff has brought his wife and daughter to New York. The topic of Na$ti’s late mother is off limits, and when his personal shopper offers to show him purses, he wants to see “all of them”, asking “which one’s the most expensive?”. Is the purse for a girlfriend, or a token of success that he buys as some kind of offering to his dead mother? A credit card issue forces Na$ti to choose, placing the purse above some of the Alexander Wang cargo pants he’d chosen—the original title Cargoes is then an allusion to this letting go, the placement of the spiritual above the material.

While Na$ti is occupied with shopping, Jeff and Smokey exchange photos of their children. Smokey observes that Ariel, Jeff’s daughter “could do with a little more meat on those bones”, and we know that Ariel is unwell. As Jeff pictures Ariel back at the hotel, sleeping, and his wife Lindsey close-by, there’s a sense that the story will shift its concerns from fame to family; and so it does, thought not quickly.

Earls’s prose draws us smoothly through each scene with an engaging combination of dialogue, action, and Jeff’s first-person narration; the night continues through dinner with Na$ti, Jeff’s return to the hotel, and then the novella’s climax: a sweet-sad epilogue that’s all heart and resets our expectations of what this novella is about. While Jeff’s interview with Na$ti is the central set-piece around which the story hangs, it’s the ending that leaves the deepest impact, a reminder of what’s truly important, even in a world where celebrity and self seem paramount.

I enjoyed Zigzag Street back in the day, along with one of Nick Earls’s more recent novels, The Fix, and his story “The Magnificent Amberson” in Griffith Review 30. He’s an expert storyteller with clean, often witty prose—a deceptively straightforward style that’s backed by great skill—and this mastery of craft continues in Gotham. I’m looking forward to reading and reviewing the rest of the Wisdom Tree series. I’ll get to them all one day, I promise!