You don't generally see a lot of work getting done in novels. Sure, fictional characters eat, drink, have sex, drive around, and boy do they talk, talk, talk, but when it comes to putting in an honest day's hard labor, suddenly, whoops! It's time for a scene change, or a flashback, or a few pages of deep internal monologue. That's what makes Elizabeth Gaffney's Metropolis (Random House; 461 pages) and Thomas Kelly's Empire Rising (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 390 pages) so unusual. They don't push work into the margins: Their characters actually get stuff done.
Metropolis is the story of a harmless, hapless, nameless young German immigrant, fresh off the boat in 1860-something, who has a knack for naively stumbling into complicated plots through no fault of his own. First he falls in with a violent Manhattan street gang whose members call themselves the Whyos and communicate with an elaborate, secret singing language (they are selected for their musical ability). Then he falls violently in love with a fetching Irish Whyo named Beanie, "a sassy girl gangster who sometimes wore trousers." Against his better judgment, our hero gets embroiled in the Whyos' various capers and feuds, including an internal power struggle involving their charismatic but cruel leader, Dandy Johnny, who sexually assaults his underlings and wears special boots tricked out with ax blades.
But even though there's plenty of sex and violence and violent sex in Metropolis, the most compelling parts are actually Gaffney's accounts of 19th century manual labor, which are as coolly, finely drawn as an architect's rendering. Her German leading man shovels snow and lays roads for the city, replacing New York City's "knobby, pothole-begetting ostrich-egg cobblestones" with slabs of smooth Belgian granite. He does time mucking out the fascinating labyrinth of Manhattan sewers. He works underwater laying the foundations of the Brooklyn Bridge in the silty muck at the bottom of the East River, and finally he gets promoted to working on the bridge's two towers. As the narrative flows forward, Gaffney's hero gets a series of names and aliases--George Geiermeier, Robert Koch, Frank Harris--and his construction work becomes a metaphor for the immigrant's task of building a new life and a new identity in the New World: "Experience had taught him that he could be whoever he or someone else wanted him to be."
Dickens was the first novelist who really nailed life in the modern city, and Gaffney's Manhattan, with its horse carts and street urchins, is still recognizably Dickensian. But the New York of Thomas Kelly's Empire Rising, set in 1930, is very much a 20th century beast: caffeinated, electrified, car and money and baseball crazy, with subways rumbling in its bowels and skyscrapers sprouting from its scalp. Kelly's hero, a good-natured Irishman named Michael Briody, is busy riveting together the skeleton of the Empire State Building, which at the peak of construction grew by a floor a day. Kelly devotes some great kinetic prose to his labors: "Briody steadied his legs and back and torso and arms and clenched his jaw against the rattle of the pneumatic gun. His muscles were fluid one second with movement, static the next to drive the rivet home, a contracting and easing of his brawn that over the weeks had become as regular as breathing." Work stops only when some poor rivet punk loses his balance and free-falls to his death on the sidewalk below.