Thomas Wolfe’s ‘Only the Dead Know Brooklyn’

— Library of Congress

This portrait of Thomas Wolfe was taken by Carl Van Vechten in 1937, the same year that Wolfe wrote “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn.” He died the next year, 18 days before his 38th birthday.

New York’s borough of Brooklyn was a separate city in the 19th Century. Its population astounds — over 4 million people live within its crowded streets representing every nationality most of us have heard of and some which we have not, living in their own neighborhoods in which the native language may be spoken exclusively.

It was the first stop in the New World for the ancestors of many of us and it has been said — perhaps with little hyperbole — that everyone living in this country even today has relatives somewhere in Brooklyn.  It has mammoth apartment buildings within which dwell 6,000 souls — more than the population of many of New York State’s villages. Areas of stunning affluence and shameful squalor can switch from one to the other literally between blocks.

Examine a map of Brooklyn and you will see it is divided into enormous neighborhoods with evocative names such as Ocean Hill, Williamsburgh, Brownsville, the poetically-named Valley Stream, Coney Island, and many others that create false expectations of their ambience. (Valley Stream does not lie in a valley and, if a stream once flowed there, it was long ago relegated to a conduit running beneath its streets; Coney Island — “coney” is an archaic term for “rabbit” — is no longer an island and its famed amusement park is a bit seedy these days.)

Running through them often obliquely and both binding them together and dividing them are legendary thoroughfares like Flatbush Avenue and a bewildering variety of other broad thoroughfares and narrow one-way streets as well as freeways and subway lines — all of which thunder and shake the ground 24 hours a day, bewildering both the resident and the visitor, making it frighteningly easy to get lost.

Thomas Wolfe wrote his short story “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” in 1937 but reading it, due to its timeliness, one could easily conclude that it had been published in a recent issue of The New Yorker.

Framed as a dramatic monologue, it could effectively be performed as a theatrical piece. I have frequently imagined it delivered by Carroll O’Connor in his Archie Bunker persona, spotlighted on a small, forebodingly dark stage with no props, relying only on hand gestures and his blunt, sarcastic comments and wit delivered in a Brooklyn accent to tell the story.

For despite its occasional humor, “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” is filled with darkness in its portrayal of a pushy, native-born Brooklynite confronting a disturbed wanderer in the nighttime wilderness of the New York subway system. Interestingly — although many of the named Brooklyn neighborhoods are referenced — neither the narrator, the lost soul he encounters, nor anyone else in the story is given a name, epitomizing the anonymity of life in a city populated by millions. 

The narrator begins his story, “Dere’s no guy livin’ dat knows Brooklyn troo an’ troo,” insisting that even after a lifetime no one — not even he — could know it all: a terse summation of existence itself.

While waiting on the platform for his subway train — presumably on his way to or from work at night — the narrator encounters the character whom he calls Duh Big Guy who is asking someone in the waiting crowd for directions to a stop in the neighborhood called “Bensonhoist.” (It must be remembered that, since the narrator speaks with a Brooklyn accent, punctuating his narrative with an occasional obscenity, everyone he quotes speaks with that accent as well, though in reality this may not have been the case.)

This is particularly true regarding Duh Big Guy who clearly is a stranger there. Duh Big Guy is asking other men on the platform for directions to “Eighteen’ Avenue an’ Seventy-sevent’ Street.”

An old adage says that, if you are in the New York City subway, never ask residents for directions for they know only the routes to the homes of their friends, their places of entertainment, and their places of employment; but determined to prove their sophistication — for New Yorkers are convinced that their city is the center of civilization — they will give directions which are certain to get you lost.

The narrator hears several sets of directions given but informs all of those offering them that they are incorrect and nearly gets into a fistfight with one man whom he calls a phony and expresses the wish that he will see him some day in a cemetery. This all sounds like the beginning of one of the ubiquitous street brawls for which New York City is famous but is prevented from coming to violence by the arrival of the narrator’s train. He invites Duh Big Guy to join him, assuring him he will help him find his destination.

Over the clattering of the subway car, Duh Big Guy reveals to the narrator his situation. Every night he selects from a map he carries a different Brooklyn neighborhood with an interesting-sounding name and then heads out to explore it.

He reveals nothing about his life in the daytime or his background — his origin, residence, or life experience that has brought him to this curious nightly quest. But the narrator notes that Duh Big Guy has been drinking heavily and, as he details some of his experiences, his story begins to sound like some nightmarish parable penned by Jean-Paul Sartre.

Though he is apparently seeking companionship, Duh Big Guy has mainly been finding rejection and violence — drunks starting fights in shady bars, bartenders wielding baseball bats to remove belligerent customers, murky warehouse districts frequented by gangs. Despite the narrator’s repeated warnings to stay out of certain areas, Duh Big Guy is convinced that his little map will help him find his way and steer him away from danger — an assertion scoffed at by the narrator who repeatedly insists that Brooklyn is unknowable.

In one poignant passage, Duh Big Guy describes walking across some empty, probably trash-ridden fields to where he could see some huge ships “all lighted up. Dey was loadin’.” Thomas Wolfe summons the poetic image of his midnight wanderer in silhouette against the glowing ships, gazing wistfully at them as they are about to embark on journeys of their own to far and exotic ports, while he is doomed to return to his nightly dangerous wanderings.

The narrator punctuates his account with sarcastic comments on Duh Big Guy’s behavior, evoking old comic situations about the strange people who ride the subways as in the notorious Broadway musical “Subways Are for Sleeping” or Bill Cosby’s famous “Nut on Every Car” stand-up routine. But as Cosby himself once commented, these situations are really not funny, for the lost souls wandering the subterranean railways are frequently mentally ill and in serious need of help — but find none from the inhabitants of New York who sometimes react to them with mocking laughter.

Cruel as this sounds, New York’s newspapers often feature accounts of  residents who have tried to assist someone apparently in need of help and have been robbed or shot or knifed for their trouble. Perhaps the laughter allows people to assuage their feelings of guilt.

The story takes an odd turn when Duh Big Guy suddenly asks the narrator if he can swim; “Like a fish,” he replies. How did he learn? “Me oldeh bruddeh pitched me off duh dock one day when I was eight yeahs old, cloes an’ all. ‘You’ll swim all right — or drown.’”

Unaware that he is reciting a formula for survival in a city as huge and indifferent as New York, he is also bewildered when Duh Big Guy wonders what becomes of people who are unable to swim and drown in Brooklyn. 

“‘Yuh can’t drown in Brooklyn,’ I says. ‘Yuh gotta drown somewhere else — in duh ocean, where dere’s wateh.’”

Asked what he would do if he saw a man drowning, the narrator insists that he would jump in and try to save him — at which point Duh Big Guy stares blankly at the map unfolded on his lap and mumbles “‘Drownin’.  Drownin’.”

At this point, it becomes apparent to the reader that the narrator, hardened by the gritty realities of life and survival in a city such as Brooklyn, understands the terms “swim” and “drown” in their literal sense. On the other hand, caught up in a whirlpool of loneliness and violence, Duh Big Guy is speaking metaphorically of his own situation, and the two cannot communicate.

Unnerved, the narrator tells us, “Jesus! I could tell by den dat he was some kind of nut; he had dat crazy expression in his eyes when he looked at you, and I didn’t know what he might do.”

When the train comes to a stop that is not his, he gets off and tells Duh Big Guy to take it easy. The last we know of Duh Big Guy, he is droning the words “Drownin’  drownin’” as the doors slam shut and the train roars off into the dark tunnel.

Recalling the experience, the narrator tells us that he has thought about Duh Big Guy “a thousand times” since then and wonders if someone has “knocked him on the head” or if he’s still wandering around in the subway in the hours after midnight with his map.

But then, in a sardonic and wildly contradictory statement of his feelings, he tells us, “Duh poor guy! Say, I’ve gotta laugh at dat, when I t’ink of him,” unknowingly summarizing precisely what it means to be able to “swim” in a city as enormous and uncaring as Brooklyn.

He concludes that by now Duh Big Guy might have come to understand that he could live a lifetime in Brooklyn and never know it all. And yet — for “Brooklyn” substitute the name of any of the colossal cities in today’s world: Los Angeles, London, Beijing, New Delhi, Rio de Janeiro.

Whatever their attractions, they harbor populations of individuals who are lost in the complexities of contemporary life, seeking to find order and acceptance among the anonymous millions but finding only indifference and alienation: a deadness of the soul, which perhaps explains Thomas Wolfe’s title.

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