Kevin Baker loves playing with history. In his first novel, "Sometimes You See It Coming" (1993), he compressed a century of baseball lore into the story of one mysterious player on the New York Mets. His second, more ambitious novel, "Dreamland," is named for a real, if unbelievable, place--one of the three great Coney Island amusement parks that drew crowds, accolades and cries of alarm at the turn of the century.
From ever-shifting points of view and perspectives, the book follows a slew of historical and fictional figures as they move between the wonders and weirdness of Coney Island and the squalid streets, bars, tenements, opium dens and sweatshops of Manhattan's Lower East Side. Baker crams every page with impressions, textures, sights, sounds and memories. Peddlers, tailors, factory girls and rabbis cross paths with Jewish gangsters, whores, brutal cops, corrupt politicians, socialist dreamers, side-show performers and an extraordinary roster of animals--rats, horses, elephants, monkeys, chickens and even a porcupine.
Improbably enough, Sigmund Freud and his gang of psychoanalysts also wander through the book. Improbable, but accurate--Freud and his cohorts toured New York City, including Coney Island, in 1909, and Baker's portrait of a Freud immersed in his anxieties about his upcoming lectures at Clark University; his deteriorating relationship with his protege, Carl Jung; and his distaste for the excesses of American life are all based in fact.