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Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

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Posted: November 6, 2017

Jennifer Egan, a Pulitzer-winning novelist, will read at Bowdoin on Thursday

Written by: Bob Keyes
Jennifer Egan Photo by Pieter M. van Hatten/ Courtesy of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Jennifer Egan
Photo by Pieter M. van Hatten/
Courtesy of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Jennifer Egan hopes her second reading in Maine will go better than her first.

Several years ago, before she won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” Egan was reading at the University of Southern Maine and chose a chapter from “Goon Squad” while it was in process.

The scene involved an attempted rape, and as soon as she started reading, she realized her mistake.

“Within two or three sentences, looking out into this auditorium, I thought, ‘This is the wrong thing. It’s not going to work. It’s going to be offensive.’ But I had no alternative with me, so I had to keep going. It was every bit as terrible as I knew it would be,” Egan said in a phone interview.

She is looking forward to replacing that memory of “abject failure” with something more positive. Egan will read from and discuss her latest novel, “Manhattan Beach,” at 7 p.m. Thursday at Kresge Auditorium on the Bowdoin College campus. “Manhattan Beach” is her first book since she won a Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for “A Visit from the Goon Squad.”

It’s a historical novel, set in Brooklyn during the Depression and World War II, and tells the story of a young girl named Anna Kerrigan; her father, Eddie Kerrigan, who works for the union and the mob; and a nightclub owner, Dexter Styles, who is Eddie’s boss.

Image courtesy of  Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Image courtesy of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

The book opens during the Depression and moves quickly through the war years, when Anna takes a job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and becomes its first female diver, a dangerous and respected job. Her father has disappeared, and she must provide for her mother and her disabled sister. After she becomes reacquainted with Dexter Styles, she figures out why her father vanished.

Egan, 55, began researching the novel in 2004 when she began looking at images of New York during WWII. She was struck by the omnipresence of water. “The whole city was inclining out toward the edge, whereas nowadays it’s inclining toward the middle,” she said.

That observation stuck with her and made her think about New York as a port and its role in the war and what life was like in the city at that time. Egan, 55, who lives in Brooklyn, began spending time at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which was the largest builder and repairer of Allied ships during the war. It employed 70,000 people at the height of the war, including 5,000 women.

That led her on a quest to talk to anyone with personal experience at the yard and to dig for information at the Brooklyn Historical Society. She kept following the thread, including one that led her to the influence and presence of organized crime on the waterfront.

The first draft took 11/2 years to write, and then she began the long process of rewriting. The book was released in October and has been well received. Reviewers have been kind, and “Manhattan Beach” was shortlisted for the American Library Association’s Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.

Egan is traveling far and wide to promote the book – and looks forward to making a better impression in Maine this time than she did before.

“I enjoy reading at colleges and universities more than anywhere else,” she said. “I have met a lot of people who encountered ‘Goon Squad’ while they were in college, and they have that kind of relationship with it — people who encountered it in writing classes or in contemporary lit classes. It’s clear the book meant something to them, and now these people are in their mid-20s, and it’s lovely to meet them and hear the book made a difference in their reading lives and writing lives.”

Reading and talk by novelist Jennifer Egan

WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday
WHERE: Kresge Auditorium, Bowdoin College, Brunswick
HOW MUCH: Free

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