Book Review: The Crazyladies of Pearl Street – by Trevanian

CrazyladiesThe Crazyladies of Pearl Street caught my eye for several reasons:

1. It is written by the enigmatic Trevanian, a master storyteller whose books I started reading as early as 1980.

2. It plays in Albany, New York, more precisely on North Pearl Street. I spend a lot of time in Albany, and I have been on North Pearl Street.

The story unfolds at about 1937 and goes through 1945, for the most part, while the LaPointe family, Jean-Luc, Ann Marie and their mother Ruby, live in a slum apartment at 238 North Pearl Street.

How much more specific can the writer get? I went on Google Maps and found the address. The house at 238 is torn down and there is now only an empty lot. But the action Trevanian places at 238 North Pearl Street and the surrounding houses, alleys and parks is so vivid, so clear, I found myself living in Albany in destitute conditions just reading this story.

The Crazyladies of Pearl Street tells the coming-of-age story of Jean-Luc LaPointe, a boy surviving with his mother and sister in the slums of Albany, New York in the years preceding and during World War II.

While the author claims the book is a novel, pure fiction, it has amazing parallels to his own life. Trevanian is a closely protected pen name used by Rod Whitaker. Until recently I did not know the real identity of Trevanian, I just admired the enigmatic writer through his books. But Whitaker was born in Granville, New York in 1931. Jean-Luc LaPointe, the narrator and protagonist of Crazyladies was also born in 1931. Whitaker grew up in poverty and lived in Albany. So did Jean-Luc. Whitaker became enthralled with stories as a boy. So did Jean-Luc. Whitaker moved out west when he was a teenager. So did Jean-Luc. Whitaker lived a large part of his later life in the Basque countryside of France. So did Jean-Luc.

We have to come to our own conclusions about whether Crazyladies is a novel or an autobiography. I say that the details are so clear, the images to precise, the locations so specific, if this is “only” a novel, Trevanian must have walked the streets of Albany and then studied the locations of buildings, homes, offices and their pictures in the archives to be able to pull this off. From details of his paper route, playing in Washington Park, going down to the theater at the corner of Clinton Avenue and Pearl Street, all those places are real places that I have personally seen, visited, and walked around in. If this is a novel, it’s the most exact, detailed and specific novel I have ever read.

Trevanian is a master in many genres. I have read all his novels:

  • The Eiger Sanction (1972)
  • The Loo Sanction (1973)
  • The Main (1976)
  • Shibumi (1979)
  • The Summer of Katya (1983)
  • Incident at Twenty-Mile (1998)
  • The Crazyladies of Pearl Street (2005)

ShibumiEach of the books is vastly different from the others. Shibumi is the first Trevanian book I found when it first came out, mostly because of its cover. It shows a configuration on a Go board, the ancient Japanese game. I happen to be a Go player. There are not too many of us in the Western world. When I saw a scene from a Go game, I immediately bought the book and read it. It’s a spy mystery. Then I read the two “Sanction” books, then all the others.

The Incident at Twenty-Mile is a western through and through. Because all the books seems to be different genres, speculators thought that Trevanian may be a collaboration of different authors, all writing under the same name.

Not so. Only recently did I find out the true identity of Trevanian as Rod Whitaker.

I clearly digress in this “book review” of  The Crazyladies of Pearl Street talking much about the writing and general career of Trevanian, but since I believe that Crazyladies is an autobiography, I think it’s justified.

Any fan of Trevanian has to read Crazyladies.

There is not much of a plot. It’s just a life story of a young boy growing up in the years during and after the depression, coming of age during a challenging time of history in America. Sorry, there are no plots in real life. Crazyladies immersed me in the slums of Albany. I kept turning the pages, because everything was so vivid, so clear, and rang so real. When I finished the last chapter, I missed the LaPointe family, and I missed Jean-Luc.

During a trip to Albany shortly after I finished reading this book, I took a walk over to 238 N. Pearl Street.

238 N Pearl Street, Albany, NY
238 N Pearl Street, Albany, NY in 2012 [click to enlarge]
The empty lot in the center of the image was where 238 N. Pearl Street was. There must have been three houses here in this empty spot, 238 being to the left of the lot. Of course, I am making the wild assumption that Whitaker actually lived at that exact address and the novel was autobiographical. Based on the way it is written, I would bet that it was so. In that event, visiting the exact location that inspired a young boy that grew up to be a novelist was an eerie experience for me.

Since the house is gone, I took a picture of the houses to the right, next door, to give a sense of what 238 N. Pearl Street might have looked like.

238 N Pearl - next door
Next Door to 238 N. Pearl Street in 2012.

With this background, you’ll just have to go and read the novel now. You will not regret it.

Rating - Three Stars

9 thoughts on “Book Review: The Crazyladies of Pearl Street – by Trevanian

  1. I just made the same pilgrimage, dragging my daughters (both of whom have read Crazyladies with me) to what I thought was the apartment, 328. I didn’t recall it precisely, and so got a little misty looking at the building and imagining young Rod Whittaker staring out the window, looking for his father. I have been a Trevanian fan since I was 14, the year Shibumi came out. He was a tremendous influence in my life, especially after I started writing myself. This is a great review. In some ways, Crazyladies reminds me of E.L. Doctorow’s World’s Fair, but because it talks so eloquently of poverty it resonates as more than mere nostalgia. His cybernotes companion is a must-read for any lover of this book.

    1. Thanks for your nice comment, J. Hardy! Your daughters must have wondered about your sanity. One has to have read Crazyladies to appreciate walking to a downtrodden neighborhood in Albany and marveling about lives long past! In that spirit, I have yet to go and visit Walden Pond.

  2. Linda Whitworth

    I am currently reading “Crazyladies” and am thoroughly enjoying it. I chose to read the book when I read the description that it took place in Albany. It isn’t often one finds a book set in their neck of the woods. Growing up in the Capital District, I know most of the places mentioned in the book. I got a real kick out of seeing places like Troy, Watervliet (where I grew up) and Cohoes (where I raised my kids, and I noticed Trevanian used the older, Indian spelling.. Cohose). I am also going through the cybernotes, which adds a whole new dimension to the story! I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who lives or grew up in the Capial Region. And yes, I definitely think it could be autobiographical in nature. The details are just too precise to be something done out of research alone.

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