In 1863 the infamous Conscription Law -- mandatory conscription into the Union Army -- is passed by the United States Congress. The only exemption: a three hundred dollar buyout. Most affected are the Irish immigrants who fill the streets of Manhattan, men whose lives are filled with the everyday brutality of the poor, lives barely improved from the harshness they endured in Ireland during the famine. They have come to America filled with dreams soon dashed by hardscrabble reality. Three hundred dollars is a fortune, virtually unattainable.
Over a few short but violent days, these men explode into a marauding mob venting its rage and frustration on the innocent, staging a riot that is the largest incident of civil disobedience in the history of the United States. Many are killed incidentally, but the majority of victims are hapless blacks made all too visible by the color of their skin. These unfortunate souls, male or female, are randomly strung up and gutted, necessary grist for the giant maw of the angry mob. Theirs is a hideous and undeserved fate.
Mired in the great conflict of mankind's struggle for survival in a fractured and unfair society riddled with injustice and bribery, these men daily watch the rich stride over the grasping hands of the destitute, deaf to their cries for help, oblivious to their need. This is a world where wealth and power grind the gears of poverty and the Yellow Brick Road is paved over with the castoff dreams of immigrants and society’s rejects.
In an era of industrialization and marvelous invention, the complexities of human nature are cast aside before the new gods of profit. Workers are overwhelmed by desperate circumstances, tinder to be fired by the vehemence of prejudice and an increasing sense of helplessness. For those willing to kill and burn, there are stories of unbelievable heroism and remarkable compassion as innocent victims reach out to one another. Bound together in terror, the ragged dispossessed huddle behind the bolted doors of their flimsy shacks, praying that the horror pass them by.
In these short days of incidental violence, the words of one survivor, a prostitute named Maddy, are indicative of the random forces at work:
"Men were always disappointed with something. That was the first thing to know about them. They were rarely satisfied, and when they weren't, they liked to blame it on something else- a rich man or woman. God in His infinite mercy… in truth it was all the same, the thing that stopped them. Best not to be mistaken for it."
In unsparing prose, Kevin Baker tackles the graphic details, from the devastation of famine to the brutal torture of innocent blacks by fellow citizens. Three couples lead the reader through these few irrevocable days: an Irish, a mixed race and an unmarried pair, all with their own personal issues. Baker thrusts an unspeakable villain into their lives, a man who has survived from one heinous act to the next and become nearly insensate from a lifetime of hellish experience. Baker pens a stunning group of characters, defining the limits of depravity in human form as well as the generosity of spirit common to the average man. The disparate characters are fascinating in their extremes, with flaws and strengths perfectly rendered. Paradise Alley is a scathing tale of humanity at its worst in startling and painful detail, memorable for its powerful message of time and place.