Geoffrey Wolff and the ‘pee-wee metropolis’

English Dept.
By PHILIP EIL  |  December 1, 2011

Geoffrey-Wolff_main
‘A JOYOUS NOVEL’ Wolff.

Jeffrey Eugenides entered a select club last month when he published his novel, The Marriage Plot. His ticket for admission was a sentence on page 9 that began, "Providence was a corrupt town, crime ridden and mob-controlled . . . ."

With those 10 words, Eugenides joined the novelist, Richard Rosen, who once wrote "Providence, Rhode Island looked like a place you ended up when they kicked you out of everywhere else"; the journalist, Dan Barry, who described the city as a "hacking cough of a place"; and the humorist, S.J. Perelman, who told Life magazine that "Often, when it seemed I couldn't pay the grocery bill, Providence has mysteriously intervened, and I don't mean my natal city, Providence, which can be counted on for absolutely nothing."

In the 1980s — the heyday of literary Providence-bashing — the city was so notorious that Tom Wolfe used it to add texture to a burnt-out Bronx neighborhood in his novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. "There were some massive but low buildings, grimy and moldering, and broad weary black streets running up and down slopes," Wolfe wrote. "It was like an old and decrepit part of Providence, Rhode Island."

But all these are no match for Geoffrey Wolff and his 1986 novel, Providence, the definitive pre-Renaissance Providence novel. The book — which turned 25 this year — goes further than simply calling our town a "pee-wee metropolis," a "petri dish," and a "jerkwater that outsiders bombed past on their way to Cape Cod." With a sordid cast of characters who rob, kill, and screw each other over in ever-inventive ways, the novel lampoons the very idea of city named for the benign, watchful guidance of a higher power.

Wolff's Providence is a city where mobsters send messages through ads in the Providence Journal's back pages, where parents give their children mug money instead of milk money ("ten dollars to give to anyone who asked for anything"), and where the Public Works Department operates like the privateers who once patrolled Narragansett Bay. "Back then the prizes were merchant ships flying foreign flags," Wolff wrote, "today the booty might be snowplows, manhole covers, asphalt."

In the novel's opening scene, the body of a pistol-whipped hoodlum named "The Moron" is hauled, dripping and stinking, from the Providence River. In its final moments, a police lieutenant dons a clown suit and jumps out of a window of the Biltmore. In between, an East Side family is terrorized by thugs who steal their car, their TV, and their Ted Williams-signed baseball only to return, in a chilling encore performance, to press a boning knife to the mother's lips and snatch the emerald ring off of her finger. Where does the family live? On Benevolent Street, of course.

Whether or not they believed the author's note claiming that the Providence depicted was "a place of the imagination," readers loved the book. It quickly sold out its initial print run of 50,000 copies. The movie rights were bought for $400,000. A reviewer in the New York Times marveled at this place where "corruption itself becomes corrupt, so that disorder achieves a comic orderliness." One Providence Journal writer proclaimed that the novel "may do more than anything since von Bulow II to put Rhode Island on America's mental map."

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