By Dana Czapnik
278 pp. Atria Books. $25.
Toward the end of “The Falconer,” Dana Czapnik’s electric debut novel, 17-year-old Lucy Adler looks up from Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” at the Japanese maple on her Upper West Side neighbor’s terrace. It’s difficult to read the passage and not think of beloved Francie Nolan peering out another window in another New York City borough, almost 100 years earlier. Yet whereas in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” both Francie and the Tree of Heaven grow up amid an unforgiving, concrete urban setting, Czapnik’s maple has been coaxed and cared for, its leaves treated with a protective coating. Lucy, a middle-class Manhattanite attending an elite private school, has battled none of the Nolan family’s hardships, nor is she plagued by the acerbic ennui that Holden Caulfield gave voice to in “The Catcher in the Rye,” but comparisons to both classic New York bildungsromans nonetheless seem inevitable. That is, until you realize that what binds them — all tell of a determinedly independent young hero’s quest for selfhood catalyzed by the crucible of New York City — is also what makes them so resistant to comparison. Like Francie and Holden before her, Lucy, a street-smart, superlative basketballer vulnerable to the perils of approaching womanhood, is too carefully drawn to be equated with anyone else.
Lucy’s fierce first-person point of view is as confident and fearless as she is on the court; she narrates her story with the immediacy and sharpness of a sports commentator, mixed with the pathos and wisdom of a perceptive adolescent charting the perils of her senior year of high school. A self-described “pizza bagel — a Jewish and Italian mutt-girl,” Lucy grapples with the rigid expectations of others, especially her harshly critical high school peers who have rendered her an outcast. “Isn’t it just so much easier for everybody when a girl fits into a nice little girl category — good girl slut tomboy girly girl smart girl ditz — instead of being a fully fleshed-out person who is in constant conversation … with all the various fractious parts of herself,” Lucy wisely observes. We watch that conversation unfold in real time through her adventures with her best friend, Alexis, a tough-talking Dominican sage tethered to Lucy through basketball and their shared outsider status; Lucy’s forays into the navel-gazing Downtown arts scene of her painter cousin, Violet; and, most pulverizing, her unrequited love for her emotionally unavailable scrimmage partner Percy, a self-proclaimed nihilist from a neglected but moneyed family who goes through girlfriends like Kleenex and is referred to by friends as the “Virgin Surgeon.”
But it’s arguably the nonhuman characters that give true shape to Lucy’s evolution: basketball and New York. (The novel’s opening line, “The ball is a face,” confirms the game’s significance and anthropomorphism for her.) Only with ball in hand does Lucy feel invincible and most herself, even as that self changes: “I ought not to imbue a ball with so much magic, but when I’m holding one I go from Lucy Adler, invisible girl … to Lucy Adler, Warrior Goddess.” Her self-descriptions on the court are as visceral and vivid as any sex scene, and when the actual sex scene does eventually unfold it is against the backdrop of a Rangers game on television, the commentators’ play-by-play mirroring Lucy’s own disembodied narration of her experience.
The basketball grows into a metaphor for the universe: “I bounce the world hard on the blacktop, and it comes back into my hand covered with a fine layer of New York City diamond dust.” The entire novel is indeed cloaked in just such a glimmering film, and Lucy’s love-hate relationship with her roiling city reflects her changeable hopes for herself and others. “I guess New York is like that, in that what you mistake it for matters as much as what it actually is.” Czapnik, who herself grew up in Manhattan around the same time as Lucy, captures nostalgia — for both a vanishing New York and Lucy’s evaporating childhood — with the lucidity of a V.R. headset. The early-90s era seems unremarkable to the characters in the thick of it — “We live in … insignificant times,” Lucy says between hits of a joint — but feels poignantly pre-9/11 to today’s reader.