Humans are doomed to want what they can’t have. Which is why pursuing the forbidden is one of the oldest yet ripest genres of story we’ve got, from Adam and Eve swiping the apple on down. Canada-born, Brooklyn-based Emily Schultz (The Blondes) taps into this urge in her fourth novel, which turns its gimlet eye to Detroit in the 1920s, at the height of Prohibition, as a suspicious car accident has repercussions for an entire community of booze smugglers, their families, and their suppliers.
On a cold winter’s night in 1927, a car headed across the frozen Detroit River, loaded with cash and whisky, suddenly disappears through a hole in the ice and plummets to the bottom. The driver, Alfred Moss, leaves behind a young wife and child to fend for themselves. His bosses, including an aggressive German supervisor and the shadowy Pentecostal preacher pulling the strings on the whole operation, find themselves even more indebted to a local gang. And his co-workers struggle to figure out what to do next – especially since at least one of them knows that Moss has actually faked his death, pocketed the cash, and fled to New York.
Alcohol may be illegal in Schultz’s Detroit, yet pretty much everyone still knows a guy who can hook you up. We see the entire chain of command of the city’s upstart bootlegging industry, from the low-level getaway drivers to the financiers at the top. But even if there are few practical barriers to obtaining a bottle of “salad dressing,” the economic – and moral – calculus is more complicated. Reverend Charles Prangley, for instance, has figured out that raging against the evils of alcohol is good for the collection plate, even as he himself transforms into a raging, drunken ball of sin as soon as he’s off the clock. In a city gripped by the fear of liquor-induced debauchery, deception and duplicity show up in various forms, whether it’s a rumrunner with a heart of gold, or the Prohibition agents who don’t think twice about keeping their own stash at home.
But the real cause of these moral contortions is the Eighteenth Amendment itself, which is widely understood in the novel to be an abject failure. Not only has it failed to stop the flow of alcohol, but it has also led to the rise of a cutthroat black market that is now more powerful than any above-board authority.
The book’s setting on the Canada–U.S. border lends itself to another study in duplicity. A constant source of background chatter in Men Walking on Water is the construction of the Ambassador Bridge, which will connect Detroit to Windsor, Ontario, and provide a concrete (okay, steel) link between the two countries. In fact, aside from the occasional French speaker, there’s not a lot of distinction between the Canadians and the Americans who populate Schultz’s novel. But that all changes, supposedly, when you introduce alcohol into the equation. Wander into the hedonistic northern wilderness, Prangley warns, and all bets are off. “We in Detroit are surrounded by degenerate Canadians who think nothing of promiscuity or drinking,” he tells one of his constituents, parroting a typical viewpoint. “It appears to be normal to them. I myself suspect their behaviour is brought on by the long-lasting effects of venereal disease.” Here we see one thing viewed through two arbitrarily different lenses. But people are people, pretty much, and no border – or amount of alcohol – can alter that fundamental humanity.
The novel has aims of being a grimy yet widescreen look at a city in turmoil. But it suffers from what we might call small-world syndrome, where even far-flung characters are conveniently one or two degrees more connected to one another than is believable. Two characters, it is revealed halfway through the book, actually fought alongside one another during the First World War; another pair turn out to have done time at the same jail, some 500 miles away (in the same place fellow bootlegger Al Capone was also jailed, and at the same time this book takes place). Even a fake newspaper article about the crime wave, rather than interviewing any number of anonymous Detroiters, just happens to quote Prangley’s secretary instead.
Throughout Men Walking on Water, readers will no doubt keep Prohibition’s ultimate repeal in mind, as proof that such an obviously self-destructive status quo could never last. But even if the particulars are several decades behind us, a story about the tensions between sin and virtue, hypocrisy and sincerity – garnished with the occasional gangster being stabbed in the brain with an ice pick – will never wholly go out of style.