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The skyscraper looming over the world

A novel about the construction of the Empire State Building

By Adam Dunn
Special to CNN

New York

NEW YORK (CNN) -- "The World Trade Center was built to withstand winds of 250 mph. That's basically a Category 5 hurricane," says the author of "Empire Rising" over the phone from Los Angeles, California. "The Empire State Building was built to withstand winds of 1,250 mph. Do the math."

The speaker is Thomas Kelly ("Payback," "The Rackets"), whose epic third novel teems with immigrants, corrupt politicians, and ascendant gangsters all swirling around the rising, stolid colossus of the Empire State Building -- the skyscraper that was the world's tallest for more than 40 years.

But little by little, from seedy workingmen's bars in the South Bronx to houseboats on the Brooklyn waterfront, "Empire Rising" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) encompasses more than a building, and more than its builders.

"Empire Rising" is set in New York City in 1930 against the darkening background of the early Depression. It's a year since the stock market crash and fortunes are going south, yet this skyscraper rises at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street.

The book seeks to depict all levels of a mixed nation undergoing a painful (and, at times, bloody) adolescence. Prohibition has led to the rise of American organized crime, and Tammany will yield to the tommy gun in this struggle (indeed, Kelly offers an eerily plausible scenario for the yet-unsolved disappearance of Judge Crater), while the Irish will be supplanted in the underworld hierarchy by the Italians.

It was a time of torch passing, according to the author.

"Around 1920 politicians were telling the gangsters what to do. Prohibition [established in 1919] had created this enormous wealth and power, and put it in the hands of guys who were basically streetcorner thugs. By 1930 it's a whole different story. ... I think by 1930 a lot of the Irish had gone legitimate already, they'd made their money and got out."

Out of an immigrant's story

The novel at first seems like the tale of one Michael Briody, an immigrant Irish ironworker on a gang erecting the building's steel skeleton. Briody also happens to run guns for the Irish Republican Army in his spare time.

As with just about everything else in this ambitious book, Briody is only half fictitious.

Thomas Kelly

"He's based on my great-uncle Michael Briody, whose grave I just visited last week in the Bronx," says the author, a second-generation Irish-American. "He was always the subject of whispers in the family -- no one really knew what happened [to him]. I had one picture of him, and over the years I'd wonder what happened. I'd heard he worked on the Empire State Building, and the rest of the book grew out of that."

Briody is a grunt in all ways, grudgingly serving a beleagured IRA regrouping after civil war in Ireland.

"The losing side of that war was the IRA. A lot of those people (men and women), if they weren't outright forced out of Ireland, were certainly made to feel unwelcome. So you had a huge migration of the so-called 'Republican Irish,' and my family was part of that," Kelly says.

All this story -- the immigrant experience, the political maneuvering (one of the lead figures in the Empire State Building's construction was the former New York governor and presidential candidate Al Smith), the lurking gangsters -- is almost too big to tackle in one book, let alone a novel, and Kelly seems to sense this.

Building the American Experiment

So the erection of the Empire State Building is, in Kelly's book, a sort of prism through which the reader may view the sweeping changes occurring at the time.

From Franklin D. Roosevelt in the governor's mansion to the newly arrived unskilled laborers from Italy walking girders hundreds of feet in the air, the rising superstructure of the Empire State Building becomes a metaphor for the growing size and complexity of the American Experiment, and construction becomes synonymous with corruption.

"You have to understand, a lot of people have misconceptions about corruption," explains Kelly, himself a former construction worker. "It's easier for you, if you're putting guns to people's heads, to put a gun to the head of one contractor, as opposed to 5,000 bricklayers. So if you get the contractors to play ball, there's literally myriad schemes that go on.

"Does it go on to the extent that it did? No," he adds. "Does it still go on? Absolutely."

Kelly's knowledge of chicanery within modern construction firms and unions is readily apparent in "Empire Rising," with its shadowy bars and union meetings where cash is exchanged and fates are decided.

Of course, things have changed, right? With organized crime in decline, and all the bureaucratic hoops builders have to jump through, it has to be a much cleaner industry than it was when the Empire State Building was going up.

Kelly agrees -- to a point.

"To assume it doesn't happen is just silly," he says. "There's a lot of money to be made, and a lot of people angling for their slice of the pie, and some of them are less scrupulous than others."

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