The main character in Ivy Pochoda's amazing book, Visitation Street, is not human. It is, instead, a place the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. A place that is home to fifteen-year-old Valerie Marino; twenty-something music teacher Jonathon Sprouse; nineteen-year-old Cree James, a person of interest in the disappearance of young June Giatto; local bodega owner, Fadi; and finally to an elusive neighborhood tagger* known as RD or RunDown. These characters are shaped by Red Hook, a part-gentrified (and part-not) waterfront neighborhood named for its red soil and its point of land that projects into the river.
Pochoda describes it best: "Red Hook is a mile-long spit stranded at the southern point of Brooklyn where the East River opens into the bay." Coffey Park, she writes, "splits the 'front' with its decaying waterfront from the fortress of housing projects and low-cost supermarkets at the 'back'." It's where two teenaged white girls from the "front," best friends Val and June, set out looking for one big summer adventure before they have to start Catholic high school in the Fall. And it is from Red Hook's aged, foul docks that the girls set sail in a pink rubber inflatable raft late one steamy July night. When only one girl returns, tossed like a wet, bloodied rag doll onto the slimy rock shore, Red Hook explodes into a teaming rage of anger, fear and suspicion, taking the surviving characters on the ride of their lives.
Because he's the one who found the unconscious Val the next morning and carried her to Fadi's bodega, Jonathon Sprouse is hauled in for questioning. Pochoda writes, "The Seventy-Sixth Precinct smells of burnt coffee. The vinyl tile is the color of a murky swimming pool. The windows are double-thick glass and don't look out on much besides the blank stucco of a neighboring town house." It is clear that Red Hook's "76" is not a friendly place, not for Jonathon and, later, not for Cree who is accused of being involved in June's death. He is taken to a windowless room where he waits with four other black teenagers. In the lineup "the fluorescent lights hum. Cree can hear static from the intercom."
All of our senses are drawn into this story. As readers, we are in the competent hands of a master. Within Pochoda's depictions we can see, feel, hear and smell this place. Her descriptions are what I call universally specific. Every one of us knows the scent of burnt coffee, but its subtle nuances, and the specific ways we describe the burnt coffee smell, are personal. No two people will identify the odor in exactly the same way. Likewise for the color of a "murky swimming pool." In my mind's eye it is a grimy green. But in yours it might be a dirty brown. We each know what the color is even though its specifics differ from reader to reader. Thus it is through Pochoda's personal specificity that her characters, her landscape and her story can be universally understood.
I am in awe of Pochoda's craft, not just because of her skill in placing the reader viscerally at the heart of Red Hook, but because she can do so without sacrificing the story line. There's no noticeable break in the forward action of the plot. Some authors, James Michener comes to mind, stop the plot to draw elaborate word pictures. It can be irritating. Not Pochoda. Not in Visitation Street. No, sir. I thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in every block and cranny of Red Hook. It is an adventure, an experience, and a great read.
*The Urban Dictionary defines tagger "as a general term for all graffiti vandals or writers."
This review was originally published in August 2013, and has been updated for the April 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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