It isn’t exactly a police procedural either, though one strand of the story follows an Inspector McClusky’s attempt to solve the riddle of why Williams shot Green. That pot doesn’t boil, it simmers. The solution, when it comes, is clever enough but not a profound satisfaction. The mystery is mostly an excuse for Lee to widen his lens, bringing in not only the ambitious McClusky but Bessie Davis, a woman who might somehow be involved. Bessie’s mother was Black and her father Native American. “Born into squalor,” she worked her way to significant wealth as the proprietor of high-end brothels, which counted “some of the great men of the city” as customers. She is perhaps the book’s most vibrant character.
Nor, finally, is this novel’s chief aim the grand re-creation of a historical figure, a life bursting at the seams. There are almost no scenes that involve Green directly planning and executing his most lasting monuments. And he doesn’t exactly warm in Lee’s hands; the book’s accomplishment is less in making us “see” him, like some kind of historical hologram, than in making us inhabit him. As Lee writes, Green was “a very particular man, and perhaps there was a strangeness to his character too, or what might even be described as an emptiness — a quality indefinable, and perhaps nonexistent.” One comes away with a textured sense of this lack of texture; a vision of someone who never comes to confidently act how you might expect someone with his eventual résumé to act. Green remains throughout, to this reader, reminiscent of a nostalgic character in a William Maxwell novel.
Lee repeatedly captures Green’s thoughtful, melancholic nature, including in a scene when as a boy he considers drowning himself in grief after the death of his mother. “There would be better years,” Lee writes. “It would take a long time to swim toward them. He wasn’t sure, at first, that he had the energy. The breakthrough was realizing that there would be days when he did and days when he didn’t, days to avoid the water at all costs and days to dive in, bold.”
When he is 21, Green boldly travels to Trinidad for a year, to work as a supervisor on a sugar plantation. There, Lee writes, he “loses the softer part of his youth.” He has been told the workers there are “newly free,” but instead finds people “enslaved in all but name.” He ends up building a Sunday school, briefly successful before it is brought down by a rumor about his sexuality.
In the penultimate chapter, Lee underscores the sad fate of his subject’s reputation: “There was once a statue made of Andrew Haswell Green, but it was crated up and lost. A laboratory in his name was built on New York University’s Bronx campus, but it became outdated and was torn down.”
Then, in a moving final scene, he brings him back to life one more time. We see him alongside Tilden, touring the construction site of the Brooklyn Bridge, where “shadows cast by the calcium lights seemed to lend a supernatural depth to the thin sound of drills and chains.” A capstone of the book’s tone and method, this brief chapter finds Green caught between worlds and between moods. “In a hundred years, as people crossed the great bridge above, would they imagine all these decades of effort beneath their feet?” he wonders. “Would they remember the dead?”
Lee’s novel artfully wonders whether we might be remembered instead, somehow, for who we were and not what we did.