Near the end of Triburbia, the debut novel by journalist Karl Taro Greenfeld, Rick, a literary celebrity who has plagiarized his popular memoirs, is found out. He moves to Los Angeles, where he has even more success writing a television show about a Jewish gangster. It is “the most realistic thing he had ever written.”
“I’m finally in the make-believe business,” Rick says, “and I am writing the least fictional stuff of my life.”
Triburbia is a redolent kind of novel, with characters you swear you’ve encountered in real life—Rick, for instance, is a composite of Jayson Blair, James Frey and, as with several of the other characters, the author. There are details about New York, especially Tribeca, the neighborhood that gives the book its title, that feel less invented than reported. Characters get takeout from Bubby’s. A fashion photographer is featured in an exhibition at the prestigious Lehmann Maupin gallery, while a struggling sculptor has “to supplicate in hopes of a show at BravinLee.” The children all attend P.S. 234, widely considered to be the best public school in the city. After dropping the kids off, their fathers gather at the restaurant City Hall and elsewhere to get coffee or, on bad days, martinis. A failed puppeteer has an affair with a woman who, gender aside, is a pitch-perfect stand-in for Jim Henson. He lives in a “skinny loft, windows on both ends, a toilet in the middle, no kitchen.”
Even though he was sitting in his kitchen, and the toilet was tucked away in a regular old bathroom, it was hard not to think of that description on a recent visit to Mr. Greenfeld’s real Tribeca loft. He bought it eight years ago from a failed puppeteer.
“I’m not some kind of pioneer or anything,” Mr. Greenfeld, 47, said. “I’m basically a bourgeois arriviste just like anyone else. Listen, I bought this place from a failed puppeteer. I’m not gonna sell it to a puppeteer, I have a strong feeling.”
In the 1980s, Tribeca was one of those neighborhoods, the kind of place The New York Times wrote about a few times a year as if they were discovering it for the first time. It was where people got turned away from the Mudd Club at 77 White Street (now home to condos that list in the $2.5 million range), danced at Tier 3 on West Broadway (more condos) or ate cheesecake and shot pool at Magoo’s at Sixth Avenue and Walker (condos, again).
“I don’t think any writers live here anymore,” Mr. Greenfeld said. “I know I’m generalizing terribly, but that’s why Tribeca hasn’t been picked over the way Park Slope has. For me, Tribeca was a place where I had kids and got to know pediatricians and dentists. I became more sociologically qualified. I interacted with more people. So I think that’s why I began to write about it.” Four years ago, the Times covered a breakfast club of Tribeca dads who meet for coffee at City Hall after dropping their kids off at P.S. 234. There’s a lawyer, a television director, a playwright and a “journalist-novelist,” Mr. Greenfeld, who told the Times he was using the group as fodder for a novel.
Triburbia, which comes out from HarperCollins at the end of the month, is Dubliners for the middle-aged downtown set. The 13 chapters alternate between different characters and are named for the addresses at which those characters live. The Joyce comparisons, however, don’t extend to style. Mr. Greenfeld’s prose is as lean and declarative as a newspaper article, though there are moments of creepy comic brilliance, like in the first chapter, when a sound engineer finds himself accused of molesting a child because the wanted posters of the suspect look exactly like him. When police officers visit him at his studio, which is strewn with a variety of objects he uses to create noises in films and TV shows, he thinks:
I am suddenly acutely aware of my environs … Boxes containing noise-creating artifacts are labeled and stacked along the wall beside me—SCRAPING; BANGING; RIPPING & TEARING; LEAKING & BLEEDING. There are piles of children’s shoes in an opened box beside the desk, labeled CHILD & BABY STEPS.
Dubliners is threaded together only loosely by the city of Dublin itself, but Triburbia weaves through its dozen or so protagonists with a much more specific detail: their children all attend P.S. 234. Also, most of the PTA is approaching Cheever-levels of stepping out. At the heart of the book is a group of fathers who meet for breakfast after dropping their children off, mostly unaware that their wives are sleeping with their coffee buddies. They don’t really like each other anyway.
Giancarlo, the chef—who feels a lot like a French Danny Meyer—doesn’t have time for his wife Beatrice, who is sleeping with the struggling sculptor Brick, who would seem vaguely like a youngish Carl Andre if not for his lack of success. Brick’s wife Ava happens to look a lot like Beatrice. Levi-Levy, an insomniac, alcoholic playwright who has yet to write the follow-up to his debut, is sleeping with Brooke, a former magazine editor who is married to the sound engineer, Mark, who has slept once with Sadie, the nanny, who is the daughter of the failed puppeteer. Brooke used to work with Marni, the wife of plagiarizing memoirist Rick, and when Marni writes her own book based on the marriage and its eventual collapse, she’s smarter than Rick because she writes a novel and gets to make everything up without consequence. The gay fashion photographer mostly stays out of all this, but he does photograph Mark and Brooke’s daughter, Cooper, a third-grader who has been picking on all the other parents’ children—especially the Jewish gangster’s—but that’s another story altogether. Mr. Greenfeld admits that the amount of extramarital sex in the book is probably its most fictional quality.
The son of writers—Josh Greenfeld, who was nominated for an Academy Award in 1974 for the screenplay for Harry and Tonto, and Fumiko Kometani—Mr. Greenfeld grew up in Los Angeles and after college in New York moved to Tokyo, where he got a job teaching English (“which I totally failed at,” he said). His first taste of professional writing was a gig with the Asahi Evening News, the English arm of the Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s national newspapers. He described it as “forlorn.”
He lasted about a year before he had to go. He can’t remember what he did, but he’s sure it was his fault. He moved on to the Tokyo Journal, a monthly city magazine, where he was managing editor and learned how to write long-form journalism by inputting stories. He was the fastest typist, so he decided to just edit as he went along.
“The best way to learn how to write something is to edit dozens of very bad magazine articles,” he said. “You’ll very quickly get an idea of what a good one is.”
He was fired from that job, too, because of “some similarly bad behavior.” It was around the time he was freelancing for The Nation that he wrote his first book, 1995’s Speed Tribes, about Japan’s rougher-edged subcultures. He describes it as similar to Triburbia, though it was ostensibly non-fiction. With its composite characters and padded-together quotes, its status as non-fiction was questioned—he says there’s a certain subset in Tokyo that is still angry about Speed Tribes.
“I didn’t really know what the official rules of narrative journalism were,” he said. “And also there may not be any rules for literary journalism. It’s kind of hazy. I was very much writing in that kind of hazy area, of sort of fictional nonfiction.”
After the book, he went on a fellowship to Columbia University’s journalism school, then became the Asia editor at Time magazine, where he wrote articles that are almost impossible to believe were published in Time magazine. The one about meth users in Thailand, which delves into Mr. Greenfeld’s own experiences with abusing and then quitting the drug, begins like a long-lost Denis Johnson story:
Jacky talks about killing him, slitting his throat from 3 till 9 and hanging him upside down so the blood drains out of him the way it ran from the baby pigs they used to slaughter in her village before a funeral feast. He deserves it, really, she says, for his freeloading, for his hanging around, for how he just stands there, spindly legged and narrow chested and pimple faced with his big yearning eyes, begging for another hit.
His best work as a journalist has always walked a line between reporting and storytelling, investigation and memoir. His transition to fiction was purposeful. In 2006, when The Paris Review published an excerpt of Mr. Greenfeld’s most recent nonfiction book, China Syndrome, about the spread of the SARS virus in China, he asked Philip Gourevitch, then the journal’s editor, what kind of writing was most difficult for him to find. Mr. Gourevitch told him good short stories that don’t feel like they’ve been workshopped or like The New Yorker has passed on them. He went back to his office—he was the editor of Sports Illustrated China—and banged out a short story about being an editor at an English-language Asian magazine. Then he spent about a year scouring every literary journal he could find, like he was doing journalistic research.
“I think we live in a time when certain kinds of great yarns will not be published as journalism ever again,” Mr. Greenfeld said. “And is that good or bad? I mean, Saturday Night Fever is always a great example. This was a New Yorkmagazine article, and it was fiction. But did that undermine what a weirdly generation-defining story that was? I don’t know. I always thought I wanted to tell stories, and that’s what pushed me into writing fiction.”
Triburbia opens around the spring of 2008, in much brighter times than the fall of 2008, around where the novel ends. The neighborhood’s initial idealism, where “there’s nothing at stake,” “the lofts are worth millions” and the “wives vestigially beautiful,” gives way to empty storefronts and falling property values. Most of the breakfast spots close, too, and the fathers are left with weak coffee, runny eggs and, eventually, nothing much at all.