Review by Woodrow Phoenix
Roz Chast followed up her prize-winning bestseller Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?, a book about how bad society is at dealing with the difficult issues of ageing, infirmity and death, with something that definitely was much less confronting. Going into Town, subtitled ‘A Love Letter to New York’, is a mixture of memoir, guide book and observations about life there. It explores Roz Chast’s personal history and deep familiarity with the workings of the city through the concern she has for her daughter, who is off to live in Manhattan as a young adult and attend college. Chast’s children grew up in Brooklyn, only very occasionally visiting the city. Naturally they’d need to be coached in the secrets of survival in the Big Apple from someone who knows it intimately, so she made her daughter a little book – ‘Nina’s Basic NYC Book focusing on the Borough of Manhattan’ – detailing the subway system, how the street grid system works, bus and taxi etiquette, the best museums and parks.
Going Into Town starts with a little explainer about how Chast had to move out of Manhattan to be able to afford a house to bring her children up in, and the sadness that came with it. “I feel about Manhattan the way I feel about a book, a TV series, a movie, a play, an artist, a song, a food, a whatever that I love,” she writes. “I want to tell you about it so that maybe you will love it too. I’m not too worried about it being “ruined” by too many people “discovering” it. Manhattan’s been ruined since 1626, when Peter Minuit bought it from Native Americans for $24. … But I still love it more than any place else, and I hope you will too.”
The book is divided into six chapters. ‘Layout of Manhattan’ (“I’m not kidding. You really need to know this.”) explains the grid, how the east side is divided from the west side, how cross streets work and formulas for finding any address. It’s followed by ‘Walking Around’; ‘The Subway’, more maps and short cuts; ‘Stuff To Do’, including her advice for navigating the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the NY Public Library and Grand Central Terminal; ‘Flora and Fauna’ –Pigeons, roaches, rats and the top five parks; ‘Food’ (“In Manhattan, every food ethnicity, preference, aversion, allergy, craving, fad, or combination of the above is represented. If you can’t find what you want to eat here, maybe you don’t like food.”); ‘Apartments’ and ‘Final Stop’, where she sums up what her book is all about: “This is the best place in the world, an experiment, a melting pot, a fight to the death, an opera, a musical comedy, a tragedy, none of the above, all of the above. We’re a target for seekers and dreamers and also nuts. We live here anyway.”
There are so many fascinating, funny and genuinely informative strips, drawings and cartoons here that Going Into Town is completely endearing as a portrait of a city and of Chast herself, and it will make you want to visit New York immediately. You won’t need reminding to take this with you.