Urban Flight is a thriller, albeit a fairly light-hearted one, that follows the fortunes of Jason Sims, a New York City traffic-helicopter pilot who puts himself in the middle of a scheme that is illegally circulating money among city officials and businessmen. The year is 1975, and the city was in full economic meltdown, and the idealism of the 1960s is a memory that leaves a bitter taste in Sims’ mouth.
Jonathan Kirshner is a Cornell professor in the government department specializing in analysis of the international political economy. He has written for a general audience before, releasing Hollywood’s Last Golden Age in 2012, a critical survey of American cinema between 1967 and 1976.
The tone of Urban Flight is oddly elegiac. Most of the contemporary pop culture references are to musicians with careers rooted in the 1960s, including older blues musicians whose fortunes were resuscitated by their rediscovery in that era. In addition to earning a living as a pilot, Sims also moonlights as a rhythm guitarist in a blues revival band. At age 30 the native New Yorker is living alone in a disheveled Queens apartment where only his record collection retains any order. Kirshner metes out pieces of his protagonist’s biography right into the last quarter of the book. Sims’ personal malaise turns out to have been caused by his being a little too close to the tragic events on the national stage in the late 1960s.
Readers of Urban Flight with a fondness for post-‘60s pop culture might be puzzled by the almost complete lack of any reference—in a book laden with pop cultural references—to any New York bands that were new in this period and hugely influential later, like the Ramones, Television, Patti Smith Group, Blondie, or the New York Dolls. With the exception of a rave about the future of Bruce Springsteen, who released Born to Run in August 1975, the characters in Urban Flight are still looking backward, slightly dazed by the fact that the Age of Aquarius is so clearly over.
This is an eminently readable book. True to Kirshner’s interest in cinema, it has all the elements of a certain kind of Hollywood movie: a romantic subplot, a buddy friendship marked by alternating antagonism and affection, a wise old black man, a femme fatale, chase scenes, bad guys whose sin is self-serving pragmatism, and a hero who initially has feet of clay, but who, as the final curtain comes down, can be seen stumbling toward redemption.
When we first meet Sims his lack of respect for establishment values and for authority has caused him to settle into a rut. Over-educated for his station, he is appalled by the venality of most of the people he works for at a local television station. When Jeb Morgan, the owner of the station, offers Sims the chance to make some extra money by doing some errands in the station helicopter, the pilot accepts. While he immediately suspects something illegal will be involved, his nihilism prevents him from caring.
Almost immediately after Sims meets Alison Monroe, a medieval historian (everyone in this book is looking backward), newly out of grad school and freshly hired by NYU. He is at his weekly gig at the Irish Cottage and hanging around with Adam Shaker, his old friend from his Columbia undergraduate days and present colleague at the television station. Alison has emerged from the 1960s with her soul intact and a sense of purpose: she pursuing her career and that also means fighting hidebound sexism in academia.
While the Irish Cottage actually exists, Kirshner has changed the names of many historical personalities. Abe Beame, the mayor in 1975, becomes “Alfred Cohen.” The Brooklyn borough president in 1975 was Sebastian Leone, not “Sid Maynes,” and unlike Kirshner’s Maynes, Leone is still very much alive and living in Brooklyn. This necessity does nothing to detract from Kirshner’s loving recreation of New York in the mid-‘70s. For another elegiac look at this period see Luc Sante’s “My Lost City” in the New York Review of Books (Nov. 3, 2003). The place was becoming a ruin of itself and yet its residents still loved it. •