Every suite tells a story in Pilcer's 'The Last Hotel'
It's the late 1970s, and the setting is New York's Upper West Side. The Big Apple is staggering under debt, runaway inflation, public union strikes and a soaring crime rate that made crossing Central Park or strolling most streets an adventure, day or night.
But in Sonia Pilcer's "The Last Hotel — A Novel in Suites," the New York of that era is also a fond remembrance of things past. It's a panorama of intertwining lives in a small residential hotel, unfolding as a sale to developers — and a Reagan presidency — loom.
This novel, by an author with strong ties to the Berkshires, is also a warm tribute to her late father, Benjamin Pilcher, who managed a small hotel in New York during her youth.
The sign for the Last Hotel, we learn as the novel opens, has this missing chrome "a," which leads to speculation that the true name is the Lost Hotel, which is acknowledged as a perfect fit. At times, residents refer to it as the Lust Hotel, but that is another part of the story —— or stories.
Lost Hotel might be fitting given the six-story building's faded yet still ornate glory, after its evolution from hotel to residential suites. It is not the Dakota, where John and Yoko live, which is nearby but of another world. Lauren Bacall might be seen shopping in a neighborhood store, but she wouldn't be living at the Last Hotel.
The rooms are rented at a reasonable cost, by the week, and typically attract single, widowed or divorced people in transition — going from something or someone to somewhere — and sometimes sensing themselves part of a family, however dysfunctional.
"Living in the Last Hotel, one became part of random, raucous humanity, separated by cracked plaster walls," Pilcer writes. "The lobby was the family room. The elevator offered daily rites of passage. The suites were paved with golden stories. Or rather, fragments of stories, curious particles of people's private lives. What one could glean from a chance encounter in the lobby, a ride up or down the elevator, a trek to the laundry room in the basement. Puzzle pieces that glittered like Manhattan schist, encircling one to stay."
Many of the residents are older, of the World War II generation, and the majority are Jewish and still carry with them Old World sensibilities, as well as some horrific memories.
The author seems well acquainted with lodgers like these. Her characters are decidedly human and their dialogue true — if sometimes in long sequences a bit overwhelming.
Several chapters in, these swirling stories might seem a blur of lives rushing through the big city, but individuality emerges more and more as the sale of the hotel creeps from rumor toward reality, and a much different decade approaches.
These disparate lives are loosely pulled together through the steady presence of the longtime hotel manager — and 15 percent owner and lone holdout against the developers — Saul Ehrlich. Like Pilcer's father, Saul is a survivor of the Nazi camps. Some of the other residents are survivors as well, or had family members or loved ones who did not survive the Holocaust.
This was an era when many New Yorkers improbably found themselves living a better life amid prosperity in the United States — even while still haunted by what they'd experienced in their youth. Unnervingly for Saul and others, they found themselves heading into a strangely secure retirement.
Their children, meanwhile, who were raised here, were catching the first hints that their own golden years might evolve in exactly the opposite direction.
Such a strong Jewish influence insures that Yiddish sayings, jokes, pet names, insults and phrases abound, and it is difficult to recall a more thorough array in another American novel.
Fortunately, the author includes an extensive Yiddish glossary at the back of the book, as well as a list of "current residents," which provides a convenient scorecard right at the beginning.
Pilcer knows this era and these people. She also wrote "The Holocaust Kid" about her generation of Jewish Americans, raised by parents who'd experienced that horror before escaping to America.
While lives overlap considerably at the hotel, if haphazardly, each character, or each suite, gets a defining chapter in the book. We learn about them as well through the intermittent commentary of the other residents — totally off-base gossip, observable fact; deft insight; whole cloth speculation; it's all included.
The novel ends, appropriately, as New Year's Eve 1980 arrives. Lennon has been shot dead outside the Dakota, the hotel guests are being displaced, but their camaraderie reaches a peak — especially after a few drinks, and with the sudden realization that change can be exciting as well as disconcerting.
In fact, it feels thoroughly American.
The book is published by Heliotrope Books and is available through Amazon or through the author's website, soniapilcer.com.
Jim Therrien is city government reporter for The Eagle.
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