Title: The Last Block in Harlem
Author: Christopher Herz
Publisher: Amazon Encore
Release Date: July 13, 2010
Unless you're new to reading this blog, you're probably aware of my love for all things New York City. There is something so real about the city, and it's full of such history. And the variety in culture and people in New York is something that continues to draw me to it. My family makes fun of me for a remark I made after returning from my first trip to NYC when I said that I felt like I "belonged" in NYC more than I do here in Florida where I grew up. (But it's true). On my most recent trip to the city, I was able to spend some time with a good friend of mine in Queens. She took us on a tour of the borough she absolutely loves and calls home. Her passion for this part of New York was contagious. I could have walked around the streets of Queens all day just taking in the world around me. I feel this way about all the parts of the city I've visited so far. So it only seemed natural that I would feel the need to read The Last Block in Harlem by Christopher Herz -- his own love story for yet another part of New York City. Coincidentally, the same friend from Queens (Sarah) and I had a conversation that day about the gentrification of Harlem. Say the world, Harlem, and look at the automatic thoughts that run through your mind. It's probably thought of as a rough kind of place and dangerous. So for some, the thought of beautifying the city and transforming it into a new safe place to live might be desirable. But then what happens to the culture, the history? Or the people who have spent their entire lives in Harlem and can no longer afford the lofty rent payments, increased by the said gentrification of the city?
The Last Block in Harlem explores this topic, the connection a group of people has to their neighborhood, which is an extension of their lives. This book is narrated in first person and is about a man who takes it upon himself to start cleaning up the streets of his block in Harlem. He doesn't do it for payment or rewards of any kind. It's merely for him and his home. This contemporary novel has some existentialist themes running through it reminding me in parts of the main characters from The Unnamed and The Financial Lives of the Poets. Our main character is tired of his meaningless life as a copywriter for an advertising agency and decides to leave his job to focus on finding meaning in his life; and it just so starts with his cleaning up his block. But these actions lead to media attention and ultimately real estate agencies start looking into Harlem and its real estate potential. This man then has to turn things around and find a way to bring the block's inhabitants together to protect their homes from being taken over.
Though short, at only 215 pages, The Last Block in Harlem is thorough and complex and can't necessarily be considered a light read. There isn't a large amount of action at any given time; in fact, much of the mentioned plot doesn't occur until halfway through the book. In the way that many books are character studies, this one is, in a sense, a "neighborhood study", with snapshots of the people that make up the neighborhood. Alongside this storyline and complementing the character's period of enlightenment is that of the man's relationship with his wife, Namuna. That he is absolutely in love with his wife is never in question -- but how he shows his love for her while going through this part of his life is. The storyline between the two of them did confuse me at times, and the place where their relationship ultimately goes was strange to me. Because there's so much to contemplate in this book, it's possible I didn't catch on to the significance of this part, so for me it's the only part I would have maybe preferred to be different.
I was certainly taken away to the streets of Harlem while reading this book and could feel Herz's love for the city. The descriptions painted for me a clear picture of the neighborhood, and the dialogue between all the characters contributed to the atmosphere of the novel. And I can't fail to mention how much I love the cover of this book! I also can't finish this review without mentioning a little about the author. I had the opportunity to meet him at the book blogger convention this past May. He talked about how when he first wrote this book, he walked the streets of New York City every day selling it individually to anyone who was willing to listen to him. He was even featured in an article in Publishers Weekly and shortly after was offered a publishing deal from Amazon's new publishing house, Amazon Encore. On his blog, Herz Words, the author has placed pictures with a short caption of all those individuals who bought the copies of the book that he hand sold individually. It's sort of fun, so check it out.
The Last Block in Harlem exuded for me a passion for that block in New York City. It was a deep, thoughtful read that I feel could really use a second read through to truly grasp everything the author intended. Those who love this city or can relate to the passion for one's own neighborhood will likely enjoy this book. Same for those who enjoy reading about a person's search for their true identity and meaning in their life. Great debut.