Pochada’s story begins in contemporary Red Hook, where drug abuse and economic decline has ushered in a violent era of gangs and underground crime. Now recently arrived hipsters in their beat-up sneakers and paint-splattered jeans and young girls in fluorescent clothes walk the streets, adding much-needed color to Coffey Park at the edge of the Red Hook housing projects.
This is a dark, dark book about people struggling on the brink—the brink of poverty, the brink of prison and the brink of psychosis, but mostly on the brink of violence. They live marginal lives in Red Hook and around Visitation Street, mostly existing under the shadows of the visiting cruise ships. Nobody has any real hope of escaping from their lives. The only white girls who traverse through this neighborhood are teenagers Val and June who imagine themselves cut from the same cloth as many of Red Hook’s residents.
While waiting for the night to take shape, Val can’t restrain her desire to be at “least a bit naughty.” Taking their hot pink rubber raft and feeling stir-crazy, Val decides to float in the bay to cool off and to see “what’s what from the water,” never mind that the water is dirty and they aren’t the best swimmers. Spying on the girls is local boy Cree, who is oblivious to the damage that will appear in the wake of the girls’ sudden disappearance. Under the Beard Street Pier, the girls’ voices carry as two dark silhouettes against the distant Jersey Rocks. Cree watches from his decaying fishing boat, the girls and their raft jumpstarting his recollections of his father, Marcus, a corrections officer who caught a bullet meant for no one in particular.
Writing deeply flawed main characters whose tempers, personal issues and prejudices make their quests all the more moving, Pochada’s vigorous novel pulls in the reader straight from first page to the last. Late summer smells hang in the air: ripe sewers, cookouts and the scent of stagnant water, along with the summer scent of diesel and salt. The smells do nothing to improve the mood of Jonathan, Val’s music teacher, who also moonlights for a local drag queen in the West Village. When Jonathon finds Val lying underneath the pier, face-up and beached on the shale, he knows she’s one of the few students from Red Hook who attends St. Bernadette’s.
Val tells the detectives she doesn’t remember what happened after she fell into the river, nor does she know where June is. From her hospital bed, she can see the foggy river where she last saw her best friend, but try as she might she can’t piece together the hours after she fell from the raft and slid into the slick water at the edge of the first pier. Instead, she tries to recall all that happened before, to turn it around, examine it from all sides and “shake it up like a kaleidoscope.”
Moving us rapidly between scenes with little time wasted on segues, Pochada evokes strong and dynamic visual impressions. As Jonathan struggles to banish the memories of his mother, confusing her picture with Val, Cree’s raft hits the moon’s reflection in front of “the heartbeat monitor skyline,” while Val becomes a curiosity in school--“someone to have around but keep at arm’s distance.” Meanwhile, Fadi, who runs the local bodega, decides to print a newsletter, the paper gaining traction in a community that craves any news of June.
From the corners of a wino’s mouth to the pungent smell of summer garbage, Pochada presents a unique place of racial and urban disfigurement where the detritus of a culture floats just below the surface. Revenge, loss, sorrow and personal demons are all key parts of her intricate plot. There’s also plenty of mystery to go around as June and her whereabouts become pivotal to our vision of the sights, sounds and smells of Visitation Street and its population.