A Drug-Fueled New York City Bacchanal and the Lives It Changed

By Jack Livings

The tony uptown doorman building of Manhattan is a fertile environment for a spiritually restless literary character to make his home. Holden Caulfield grew up in one. So did the children of the Great American Author patriarch in David Gilbert’s engaging 2013 novel “& Sons.”

An architectural and cultural subset of such apartment houses is the gargantuan, prewar Upper West Side palace, at once a city-state of casual opulence and a provincial village stuffed with eccentrics. In Tom Barbash’s 2018 novel “The Dakota Winters,” set in the Dakota Apartments on Central Park West in the year leading up to John Lennon’s 1980 murder at the building’s entrance, the young narrator struggled to shape an independent identity in the shadow of his larger-than-life father, a troubled television talk show host.

Five blocks north, Hazel Saltwater, the middle-aged narrator of Jack Livings’s kaleidoscopic debut novel, “The Blizzard Party,” occupies similar literary territory, looking back at the same early-Koch-era New York City, a place of violence, revelry and happenstance. Ensconced in her childhood apartment in the monumental Apelles co-op, a full-block palazzo unmistakably modeled on the Apthorp at 78th Street and Broadway, Hazel methodically recounts a catastrophic concatenation of events during a city-smothering blizzard in 1978.

Amid a drug-fueled bacchanalian blowout that night, untold pieces of furniture and one naked body were tossed off the terrace of an Apelles penthouse apartment. Hazel, 6 years old at the time and sleeping in a guest room at the party, found herself at the center of the disaster, the events of which her father, the author Erwin Saltwater, wove into a best-selling novel that transformed him overnight into a literary titan.

Collateral damage of that artistic alchemy was Hazel’s identity, as she suffered two violations at that party. The first occurred when the senile lawyer Albert Caldwell, as his final act on earth, crawled into bed with her, took her hand and “carved himself a snug little slot” in her head, cramming it with his memories until she “had become a file cabinet for Albert’s history.”

Also crowding Hazel out of her own consciousness was her father’s fictionalized version of her. In the name of veracity (and Livings’s novel questions in a thousand ways whether such a thing exists), Hazel’s father did not change anyone’s name in his book. Thus, she recalls, “I became a photo negative, a child-shaped hole into which anyone who’d read the book tried to fit the Hazel they’d met in those pages.”

Now Hazel — who is further traumatized by the dematerialization of her husband at the World Trade Center on 9/11 — has set out to write her own version of “The Blizzard Party,” an excavation of her past and those of her father and neighbors. In Hazel’s view, Erwin got the whole thing wrong: “He’d translated my story without even consulting the original.”

It is hard not to hear, in all this telling and retelling, echoes of the family of Joseph Heller, who wrote much of the bombshell novel “Catch-22” in Apartment 2K South of the Apthorp, and who, like Erwin, both concealed and revealed himself by transmuting disturbing World War II experiences in his fiction. After Heller wrote about a man’s disaffection with his dreary children and wife in the 1974 novel “Something Happened,” Erica Heller, his daughter, parried the blow in a 1975 essay in Harper’s called “It Sure Did.” She then followed up with a 2011 memoir about growing up with her father in the Apthorp.

But “The Blizzard Party” is no roman à clef. It is a raucously inventive tale of loss and erasure told with an authorial assurance uncommon in a first novel. While Hazel begins with a carnival of interconnected characters rattling around in the Apelles, her story ultimately flies out in all directions, spanning generations and continents as it explores the challenge of understanding one’s place in what might be called real life, while schlepping around others’ painful pasts as well as one’s own. “We absorb our parents’ grief whether that grief is spoken or not,” Hazel reflects.

Along the way, there are some trippy excursions involving auditory time travel and the earth’s crust, where not all readers will care to follow. But Livings, whose story collection “The Dog” won the PEN / Robert W. Bingham prize, is a nimble wordsmith. And if his novel can be discursive and the language overwrought — metaphors begetting metaphors like the successively smaller cats popping out of the Cat in the Hat’s striped headgear — the overall effect is thought-provoking, and this rollickingly bleak rendering of 1970s New York is well worth a visit.

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