Book Review: Empire Rising by Thomas Kelly


On a flight to Portland, OR a little over 10 years ago I read Payback a novel by Irish-American writer Thomas Kelly.  It told the story set in the mid-1980’s about Sandhogs, construction workers who build tunnels, with a mix union-management strife, corrupt politicians, Irish gangsters, and family squabbles turned violent.  It was a breezy read full of violence and machismo, but intelligent as well.

Now I’ve listened to Empire Rising (2005) read by Michael Deehy, which is a similar story but set in 1930, at the start of the Great Depression, amid Prohibition, with the construction of the Empire State Building at it’s centerpiece.

  • Michael Briody – a recent emigrant from Ireland.  Fought with the British in WWI, against the British in the Anglo-Irish War, and against the Free State in the Irish Civil War.  Briody lives in the Bronx, works on a team of iron workers on the Empire State Building, and is an amature boxer.  Also he continues to do jobs for the IRA and for Tommy Twohey.  Oh yeah, and he also wins the heart of Grace in this novel’s central romance.
  • Grace Masterson – an Irish woman with a troubled past who settles on a house boat in Brooklyn.  She visits construction sites to sketch and paint the workers.  As Lewis Hine’s assistant she’s able to enter the ESB site.  She’s also the paramour for Johnny Farrell who has her “deliver money” to banks around town.  Scarred by life, she’s surprised that Briody wins her heart despite everything.
  • Johnny Farrell – the head honcho of Tammany Hall behind the Walker administration.  A finger in every pot, whether legal or illegal.  Not too pleased to learn that Grace is having liasions with Briody.
  • Tom Twohey – a boyhood friend of Farrell’s who is the chief gangster in their Bronx neighborhood.  Also runs guns for the IRA.  Finds himself making an uneasy allliance with the Italian mob.

Kelly’s fictional characters mix with real-life historical figures such as Mayor Jimmy Walker, Governor Franklin Roosevelt, photographer Lewis Hine,  failed presidential candidate Al Smith (also head of the Empire State Building project) and Judge Joseph Crater (working in an answer to Crater’s mysterious disappearance).

For the most part this is an entertaining book weaving together New York City history, the Irish-American experience, and the romance of the era.  Towards the end it gets over the top as seemingly everyone wants to kill Briody, and for good reasons too as he’s got himself mixed up in everything.

Author Kelly, Thomas, 1961-
Title Empire rising [sound recording] / Thomas Kelly.
Publication Info. Hampton, N.H. : BBC Audiobooks America, p2005.
Description 13 sound discs (974 min.) : digitally mastered.

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