Rarely do you get a memoir that is filled with unending variety of structure. The Boy Detective is hardly deserving of that title alone but something akin to a detective story moving along random thoughts, witty statements, and poetic lines.
Roger Rosenblatt (Kayak Morning: Reflections on Love, Grief, and Small Boats) reminisces on New York City neighborhoods, including his home in Gramercy Park of the 1950s. He recounts the childhood games and the mischievousness of a nine-year-old discovering a city, pretending to be a detective, uncovering new cases, strange characters and studying mysterious events. As an adult he walks through memorable blocks, revealing why this particular place causes him to stop. Perhaps this is where the kids played or where that old flower shop use to stand. Forward to modern-day when there are people quickly walking, texting, or taking selfies. What is most endearing is the memory of his family. His dad, silent and stoic on most days.
As we read on, Rosenblatt’s comes to terms with his place in the world through this long arduous walk. His words intersect between memory and philosophical inquiry at times, often bringing up his favorite quotes from other writers or professors. In this case, the words of his astronomy professors.
“Then he walked to the other end, holding a speck of dust, which he called the earth. He stood silent for a moment before saying, as it if to himself: “either we are alone in the universe, or we are not alone. I find both propositions equally unbelievable. ” The word planet comes from the Greek word planasthai, meaning to wander.
Similar to a detective, a writer can be going after the “wrong guy.” Though Rosenblatt suggests, ” but if your walk is illimitable, no trail goes cold.”
Every time you embark on long walks through city streets, you’re a child once more encountering new and strange things; there’s something impermanent about how the city flows, the random faces, and the stories you tell yourself about them. Rosenblatt suggests that in our walks we participate in the imaginative construction of the self, as it’s beautifully demonstrated in the “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon,” by Wallace Stevens.
For a long-time New Yorker like myself, you can’t help but feel nostalgic, when you’re transported to the old Manhattan of small shops, immigrant communities, and risky characters. For anyone new to the city, The Boy Detective, is a fresh way to discover its history and demand for constant change.
Despite the lovely ruminations and a whole lot of references to detectives in literature and movies (many which I’ve noted to watch or read later), his writing often turns to rambling. Words go too fast, losing meaning along the way. Rosenblatt is truly powerful when he stops to describe and ponder the meaning of life.
That’s the thing about wandering: sometimes you get lost or meet a dead end— but it’s not so much time being wasted, as it is, a chance to improvise. If The Boy Detective is taken in that sense then all is not lost. The book is not for those wanting a structured memoir of the city. It’s a personal, often historical connection to a place through the eyes of a fictional detective. At the center is a youthful fascination for uncovering the mysteries that exist within the self and the place we call home.