Thursday, September 15, 2011

Adam Langer's Fable of Love, Gentrification and Real Estate Set to Music

(Originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger in February 2008)

In “Ellington Boulevard: A Novel in A-Flat”(Spiegel and Grau, $25), Adam Langer’s witty take on real estate and gentrification, the jazzman Ike Morphy comes home to his New York after burying his mother in Chicago to find a real estate broker in his rental apartment and that his world is being sold out from underneath him. Ike and his dog Herbie Mann lives are thrown into a tailspin, as are the lives of a dozen other New Yorkers, including the buyer and her husband, her real estate agent, the seller and the mortgage broker.

Using the touches of a 1940s Broadway musical, Langer explores the tumultuous changes to one block and one apartment in Manhattan through Ike, who has lived their for 20 years, and Rebecca Sugarman, a literary editor buying his apartment. With chapters with titles like “An Offer is Made” and “A Deal is Closed,” Langer pulls in characters like a real estate agent obsessed with musical theater, a mortgage broker having a secret affair, a bitter magazine editor who hates dogs and the seller of Ike’s apartment who dreams of opening a high end restaurant/car wash. In the novel, characters perform solos about their lives and also act as members of the ensemble as the catchy writing pushes romantic couples together and the story to its (almost) inevitable, Broadway-style happy ending.

Langer, 40, was raised in Chicago and educated at Vassar College. He was a playwright and has written the critically acclaimed novels “Crossing California” and “The Washington Story.” Langer lives in New York City with his wife and young daughter on Duke Ellington Boulevard, and spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley at a coffee shop near his home.

Q. What inspired the story of Ike Morphy finding a realtor in his apartment?

A. It happened to me, but I took it to its logical extreme. I came home from vacation with my pregnant wife to find a realtor in our apartment. We open the door and there were four people in the apartment--a realtor, a quote unquote nice young couple in their twenties and the dad who was buying the apartment. The real-estate agent was slick and unctuous. I don’t really have a temper, but I pretended to have one and had a swearing argument with the realtor in front of his clients. I thought the whole thing was so rude.

The story I wrote extrapolates the situation into a really serious one. What if the tenant had no place to go? Ike Morphy had been able to call his own financial shots, but now he can’t.

Q. Most of the characters are outsiders coming to New York. Why?

A, I didn’t realize that until I had gone through the book again. A lot of what I am writing about in an outsider’s perspective on what people come to New York expecting to find and what they actually find. It’s like the musical “Wonderful Town,” where there is the song about people coming to New York to sing opera, but they wind up selling fish at the Fulton Fish Market. It’s not a new thing. New York can also be a very liberating place. There are a lot of things you can do here that you can’t do elsewhere. You may make it or not, but there is always that possibility. Because of the real estate situation having become so unaffordable, a lot of people who come for artistic reasons can’t afford to do their art.

Q. The two extreme view of gentrification are that it either rips apart the fabric of a neighborhood or it raises up the standards of a neighborhood. How did you approach the subject?

A. I didn’t write a treatise on gentrification. I wrote about a lot of different people’s view on gentrification. Obviously, when I started the novel, my sympathies weren't with the ne’er-do-well son of the late owner of the apartment kicking the jazz musician out, but it is his apartment. I go between logic and naiveté on the changes in my neighborhood. In my life and work, I have been somewhat resistant to change. My mother still lives in the Chicago home my parents bought in 1960. I come from a place where change is viewed as dangerous.

Q. With most of your characters paired up at the end, your novel is almost like a Broadway musical. Why?

A. I was working with the idea, how would people get what they want and what would they pay to get what they want? A lot of people have called this book a real estate novel, and that is true, but I also like to think of it as exploring the concept of home. How do you define home and how do you find a home when you’ve lost what you considered your home? I wanted to go from the specifics of New York to the abstract of home. That’s why I ended with Herbie Mann, the dog. He sees his home as not necessarily a place, but where he finds love, where he’s taken care of and where he’s happy. That’s what home is and that is what all the characters find in the end.

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