The Bay Ridge Canon: The Narrows by Kenneth H. Brown (Interview)

The NarrowsThe Narrows was published in 1970. It’s an episodic, mostly autobiographical chronicle of a group of kids’ high-school years in Bay Ridge in the 1950s—of playing on Narrows Avenue, of necking on Shore Road, of necking next to the golf course, of getting drunk at local dives, of stealing cars on Colonial, of dancing at St. Anselm’s, of partying at the Shore Road Casino, of fighting Italian kids from Fort Hamilton Parkway in front of Hinsch’s (here called “Trask’s”)—with side trips to Breezy Point, western Coney Island, Brooklyn Prep and The City. The author, Kenneth H. Brown, had his first success in 1963 with a blistering play, The Brig, about Marines under arrest, which “drew some scattered and wary acclaim,” according to the Times, “even as brave audiences cringed from its blowtorch realism.” It ran for two years and toured Europe, won three Obies and was made into a film by Jonas Mekas. A 2007 revival won three more Obies and toured Europe again.

The novel is almost like a prequel; at the end, half the characters join the Marines. And there are a lot of characters, literally dozens, so many it’s hard to keep track; the book opens with Alfie Schultz, and you’re prepared for him to be the main character—and then we almost never hear of him again. But that’s what growing up in Brooklyn is like: you know a million kids—from the block, from school, from other kids—and a few remain fixtures while the rest wander at random into and out of your life. The novel is precise, down to street addresses, and authentic—it’s a valuable snapshot of life in the neighborhood, more matter of fact than nostalgic, at times unflinchingly ugly, at once immediately familiar yet alien. Brown is now 80 years old, and he lives in Bay Ridge after “a lifetime of traveling the world and living for a time in Manhattan,” he told me by email. I asked him a bunch of other questions—about himself, his life and his book (which is out of print, but used copies are available here or, if you must, here).

When did your parents move to Bay Ridge? How did you end up here?
My parents grew up in Borough Park, in Brooklyn, within sight of the elevated subway on New Utrecht Avenue. They were childhood sweethearts, and they got married when he returned from four years in the Navy and moved to Bay Ridge. He was a cop, and she was a bank officer. I was born on 88th Street and Ridge Boulevard in 1936.

How autobiographical is the book? Are you Howie?
The Narrows is basically a factual account of my teen years, with some fictional elements added to enhance the narrative. And yes, I am Howie in the book.

You make Fort Hamilton high school sound terrible. Was its reputation back then really so bad?
It was not that Fort Hamilton High School was so bad. It was that I was in an elite Jesuit school, and it would have been a big let down to have to go there.

Was Trask’s a real place?
Trask’s was actually Hinsch’s. I changed the name just as I changed the names of all the characters. It was called Hinsch’s when I hung out there in the 1950s.

You’re very specific about locations, directions, even addresses. Why was it important to you to be so detailed? (For example, Hubert Selby is usually the opposite—intentionally vague about locations, street names, etc.)
Locations, directions and addresses were important because I was actually painting a portrait of the place and time, and I wanted it to be as accurate as possible.

Gilbert Sorrentino’s Steelwork came out the same year; were you aware back then of him? Or the book? Or any other writers from Bay Ridge?
I read Selby and Sorrentino, but I’m not sure if it was before or after I wrote the book.

How did the novel come about? Had you been planning it for a while, or did it just spill out?
I have been writing regularly since I was eight years old, and The Narrows was one of many projects that I was working on at the time I wrote it, in 1968.

Kenneth H. Brown
Kenneth H. Brown, author photo from the back of my tattered paperback

When did you leave Bay Ridge?
I left Bay Ridge when I was discharged from the Marine Corps and started at Columbia on the G.I. Bill in 1957. I lived on the Upper West Side for a while and then moved to Greenwich Village.

Why did you move back to Bay Ridge?
I have also lived in London and Paris during my successful years and came back to Bay Ridge on a permanent basis when I went broke in the 1970s. I had always maintained the apartment in Bay Ridge because it was rent controlled and had been my parents’ home before they retired and went to Florida in 1964.

Do you ever walk down to where you grew up? Does the neighborhood make you nostalgic?
I live two blocks from Narrows Avenue and walk past my block and childhood residence all the time. It has not changed in the least.

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