“The World’s Fair, in that summer of 1939, was a place full of promise,” writes Brendan Mathews in his debut novel, The World of Tomorrow. “It promised a world of frozen food and hot jazz, a world that would be better supplied and better organized in power, communications, transport, and amusement. Ribbons of highways would connect skyscraper cities where every citizen had a home in the clouds and a car on the road.”
That passage appears on page 514 of Tomorrow, and the preceding pages don’t really have much to do with the World’s Fair, which drew over 44 million visitors to Queens, N.Y., during its eighteen-month-long run. I had been hoping that this book would provide an exciting and dramatic saga set against the backdrop of the fair; instead, I got a so-so novel which climaxes at the event.
The main focus of the book is on three Irish brothers, one of whom emigrated to New York 10 years ago and two who join him there in June 1939. Martin is a semi-successful musician, married with children, still hoping to get his big break. Francis and Michael set sail from Ireland on the run from the I.R.A. with a bag of stolen loot, which is used to book first-class tickets; once aboard the ocean liner, Francis is no longer a small-time pornographer who busted out of jail by making an escape during his father’s funeral, he’s a Scottish laird named Sir Angus. Michael, a former seminarian rendered deaf and mute in an accident, is now Sir Malcolm, tragically injured while fox-hunting.
Little does Francis know that an encounter with a wealthy mother and daughter aboard the liner will force him to keep up the “Sir Angus” ruse once he disembarks in New York. Meanwhile, Michael is joined by a couple of companions: the ghost of William Butler Yeats, the recently-deceased Irish poet, and a very-much-alive young street photographer named Lilly, who helps Michael after he becomes separated from his brother.
Not surprisingly, stealing money from the I.R.A. manages to get Francis in hot water. Much of the book is devoted to Francis’ pursuit by yet another Irish immigrant; I was never as interested in that story as I was in the subplot about Lilly and Michael. Lilly is a European Jew who is supposed to return to Prague, where her boyfriend awaits, but the gathering storm clouds of World War II cause her to wonder if going home would be a wise move, considering the German occupation of Czechoslovakia.
There are a lot of characters in this book, but I never had a problem keeping track of them; I often got the sense that Mathews is more skilled at creating characters than in conjuring up a sense of place, since I often found myself wanting more of a flavor of 1939 New York. This is a wildly ambitious novel, but perhaps he’d be better off narrowing his focus a bit next time around.