Adam Langer is one of those people who notices everything. There’s a throwaway detail early in Ellington Boulevard where he has a minor character drive away from a scene in a car missing a license plate. Of course the alcoholic slattern Marilyn Scheinblum would drive an inadequately registered car!
But he also has a grip on the big picture. This is a novel about New York City real estate. “Each sale is its own miniature play: a wry Neil Simon comedy about a couple selling the walk-up where they first fell in love, a bleak Arthur Miller family drama about siblings feuding over inherited property, an August Wilson tragedy about a man forced to sell because he can’t keep pace with the rising cost of living.” Oh, what a clever concept: he works outward from one apartment changing hands on West 106th St. also known as “Ellington Boulevard.” The tenant, affable and earnest, is being evicted by the greedy building owner. The cast of characters spirals out from there to the buyer, her fiancé, the realtor, his boyfriend, the owner’s former wife… you get the idea.
Langer keeps all the balls in the air, which is hard enough to do. What sets him apart is the way he walks the fine line between comedy and caricature. In some ways this is a smaller, kinder Bonfire of the Vanities. With a cast this big, you’re not aiming for exquisite shades of character. Langer’s structuring conceit is framing this as a musical. He gets everyone on and off stage efficiently, lets ’em have their moments, but they aren’t going to be sitting around looking into a dying fire, laying bare their souls. (Exceptions are made for the protagonist and his love interest, who get to bare their souls in northern Manhattan.)
So you have all these more or less venal characters buzzing around, mortgage brokers and magazine editors and emotionally stunted graduate students. Langer mocks them all, but he also endows them with some humanity, so that we empathize with… well, most of them. I really admire this. It’s much easier simply to be savage but Langer is obviously generous and his tolerance expands the novel.
Ellington Boulevard focuses on the crazy peak of the real estate market in New York. As the book ends, there are hints that the bubble may be bursting. Now that we’re sitting here amid wet soapy bubble-residue, the book feels like a monument to something finished. I hope that doesn’t harm its fate, because it’s lots of fun.
Full Disclosure: Adam is the friend of a friend and we share a publisher.