In the late summer of 1609, Henry Hudson sailed into what the Lenape called “Muhheakantuck,” the New York river that now bears the famed explorer’s name, on a Dutch East India Company ship called the Halve Maen, or Half Moon. The title of Mary Beth Keane’s absorbing and unsettling new novel refers to a fictional bar in a fictional New York town rather than the ship. But like a sailing vessel, her novel explores worlds old and new, embarks on risky ventures, and sometimes makes thrilling, devastating discoveries.
“Lately, he’d been having thoughts,” Keane writes early on about forty-five-year-old Malcolm, owner of The Half Moon pub, for whom “middle age was looming.”
While at the stoplight…a week ago, the sunset a purple bruise above Tallman Mountain and the wide Hudson hidden beyond, he thought: I could keep driving. I could turn right and head for Mexico. Turn left and make for Canada…turn up in some Quebecois Village.
But the light turned green, and “the thought evaporated.” There’s much more to such journeys, after all, than mere rivers to cross, miles to travel.
Fans of Keane’s previous bestseller Ask Again, Yes (2020) already know The Half Moon’s setting well. The town of Gillam is “only about twenty miles north” of New York City, a prospective resident—a cop—explains in the earlier novel. “[T]here are a lot of guys there on the job…the houses all have big lawns and kids deliver the newspapers from their bicycles just like in The Brady Bunch.”
In Keane’s rendering, though, Gillam is neither an Eden nor a suffocating suburban purgatory. It’s a bit like a haunted house. Even with its more spacious landscapes, a Gillam dad still plays catch with his son in “the middle of the road, as if they were on a block tight with tenements, because that’s where he learned from his father.” This is one of several inclinations Keane’s characters “inherited from their parents,” traits that were “present…
just the same as their eye color, their height; the patina of a childhood made up of hand-me-down sneakers and overhearing their parents discuss layoffs, strikes…. When people were raised without worry, you could feel it just by standing near them.
These legacies cast long shadows over the children and grandchildren of Ellis Island who populate Keane’s four novels. Her 2009 debut, The Walking People, spans the second half of the twentieth century, following two sisters and a so-called Irish “traveler”—or “tinker” —from rural Galway to the teeming streets of Manhattan. Then came Fever (2013), a darker version of a similar journey, made by the troubled domestic worker who was catapulted to infamy as “Typhoid Mary.”