Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York is billed as something of a sequel to Roz Chast’s best-selling memoir Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?, which is a nice way of saying that if you liked that book, here’s more you’ll probably like too. In a world that’s been missing Erma Bombeck for 20+ years, Chast continues to fill the void – with a cosmopolitan twist and plenty of squiggles.
Don’t let the title fool you: it may promise open fawning for New York City but Chast is primarily concerned with educating us about Manhattan, which has the distinction of not only being the smallest of NYC’s five boroughs, but also its most densely populated. If that wasn’t enough it’s also the second-smallest – and most densely populated – county in the United States as well. To list all of Manhattan’s superlatives would take up the entire space of this review, so just head over to Wikipedia if you need pure factoids.
For everyone else, Roz Chast has done you a solid by condensing all the really important bits into 169 pages full of her trademark squiggly drawings (which are lovely) and occasional photos (which are also nice, though not as lovely). It’s also a fairly quick read, meaning you could probably finish in the time it takes you to commute to work, provided you take the subway. If you lived in Manhattan you probably would take the subway.
A primer: having grown tired of Brooklyn’s growing crime epidemic (“crack vials all over the sidewalk”), as well as obvious financial incentives northward, the author and family relocated to the bigger, cheaper suburbs an hour north of Manhattan back in 1990. The idea of leaving their beloved city for “the country” terrified her. Would suburban living turn her growing family into philistines? Zombies? Or worse…REPUBLICANS? What the hell was a house basement, anyway?
This book, however, started life as a small booklet for her daughter, who decided to make the reverse passage back to Manhattan for college. Thankfully, Chast has expanded its audience for the rest of us, at least those who’ve yet to experience the highs, lows, and everything else that the Big Apple has to offer. You might be asking how an acclaimed cartoonist like Roz Chast gets away with growing up in Brooklyn only to write/illustrate what’s essentially a love letter to it’s borough to the north. Why, that’s just how New York City works.
With Roz Chast as your surrogate tour guide you’ll cover all the bases, the ones that matter, anyway. Like getting to know the basic layout of Manhattan, how to walk around like a champ, making sense of a subway system that seldom does, fun stuff to do (hint: there always is), proof there’s greenery along the concrete, how not to starve (nearly impossible), and what to look for when scouting out for the perfect apartment (which don’t exist). It’s a world where vigilance is mandatory and cars are optional.
It’s a place where natives secretly laugh at visitors who confuse the pronunciation for the world-famous Houston (How-stun) Street with that Texas city of lesser renown. You’ll learn how trees adorned with plastic bags and free-range pigeons represent the place better than most landmarks, and how you can’t go wrong with an old-fashioned diner. After all, Chast reminds us, “you won’t be the only person who needs some French toast at four A.M. And if you are, nobody cares.”
One is tempted to call Going Into Town It the ultimate outside/insider’s guide to Manhattan, even if its author would scoff at the idea of calling it a “guide” of any kind (she says as much on the first page, though relents slightly on the last). Is it informative? Yes. Is it funny? Oh, heck yes. Does it exhaustively detail everything the Big City has to offer? What are you, nuts?
Much like the million-plus exhibits in The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met, if you’re hip), the city is constantly in flux, always changing, and full of surprises. Any guide or reference material you’d swear on would be more hypothetically useful than practical; the only way to really get to know the city would be to put foot to pavement and explore. Failing that, hop on the subway or catch a bus. Or maybe just hail a taxi. Hey, Manhattan is nothing if not overflowing with options.
Whenever the urge to become overly nostalgia hits, Chast reminds us that New York itself is change, and such change is inevitable. While she may not care for some of the ‘fanciness’ that’s papered over some of the past (think $30K purses), such trade-offs for comfort are better than best-forgotten relics of a bygone age like gross public restrooms, graffiti (the good kind), and AIDS.
Going Into Town is a treat, that rare book that’s both fun to read through and makes an awfully nice gift, even for those who wouldn’t dream of setting foot in Manhattan. And that would be a shame; don’t forget NYC is the place that took the shock of 9-11 headfirst, shook off the dust and shouted back in one united voice as only the most diverse collection of humanity on earth could: “Is that all you got?” For Roz Chast and millions like her, it’s truly the best place in the world, a constant experiment that learns from its mistakes and is better for making them. That love is infectious.