Hardcover, 336 pagesPublished January 22nd 2019 by Hanover Square Press
A debut novel about a young artist, a missing woman, and the tendrils of wealth and power that link the art scene in Brooklyn to Manhattan’s elite, for fans of Jonathan Lethem and Richard Price
Reddick, a young, white artist, lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a historically black Brooklyn neighborhood besieged by gentrification. He makes rent as an art handler, hanging expensive works for Manhattan’s one percent, and spends his free time playing basketball at the local Y rather than putting energy into his stagnating career. He is also the last person to see Hannah before she disappears.
When Hannah’s fiancé, scion to an old-money Upper East Side family, refuses to call the police, Reddick sets out to learn for himself what happened to her. The search gives him a sense of purpose, pulling him through a dramatic cross section of the city he never knew existed. The truth of Hannah’s fate is buried at the heart of a many-layered mystery that, in its unraveling, shakes Reddick’s convictions and lays bare the complicated machinations of money and power that connect the magisterial town houses of the Upper East Side to the unassuming brownstones of Bed-Stuy.
Restoration Heights is both a page-turning mystery and an in-depth study of the psychological fallout and deep racial tensions that result from economic inequality and unrestricted urban development. In lyrical, addictive prose, Wil Medearis asks the question: In a city that prides itself on its diversity and inclusivity, who has the final say over the future? Is it long-standing residents, recent transplants or whoever happens to have the most money? Timely, thought-provoking and sweeping in vision, Restoration Heights is an exhilarating new entry in the canon of great Brooklyn novels.
The white kids will complain—another bullshit corporate condominium, destroying the neighborhood—but those same white kids will move in. I never thought I’d live in a place like this but, ugh, I need a dishwasher. And I hate laundromats. All my friends are here and besides, the design fits the neighborhood, not like those other buildings, plus a doorman. All the cachet of the neighborhood and none of the hassles. The guilty thrill of being surrounded by blackness without having to live like them. Not separate but unequal.
Wil Medearis’s debut novel, Restoration Heights, cleverly weaves together the lives of the wealthy and the destitute, the disenfranchised and the entitled, and the color lines between black and white into a sublimely realistic portrait of the class and race divisions in this country, as seen through the lens of gentrified Bed-Stuy, New York. More than that, though, this novel is a thrilling page-turner with a protagonist you can root for and supporting characters who aren’t often what they seem.
Leaving aside the summary of this novel, as the description blurb is wholly accurate, Restoration Heights was a delightfully surprising find for me. In many ways, it reminded me of Sam Graham-Felsen’s Green , published in 2018, in that it is a novel written by a young white man about the experiences of living in the middle of a mostly minority neighborhood. Medearis’s protagonist, Reddick, not only identifies with the neighborhood and feels wholly at home there, but he embarks on a search to find a missing woman he met only briefly the night before that ultimately forces him to confront his place within that neighborhood—and within society’s stone-set caste system as well. And as he explores economic disparities and racial tensions in the inner-city, Reddick, who constantly mentions his part African-American grandfather in innocent attempts at proving his authenticity, finds himself at the heart of a makeshift investigation of a young woman’s disappearance—a young woman who’s engaged to an old-money Upper East Side scion but is last seen drunk with two black men in Bed-Stuy. This such racial and class tensions in play, the stakes have never been higher.
I’ve got some sorry news. There is no people. That’s the hardest lesson this country taught me. It is the heart of my success. You want this to be a community but it’s only a territory. Individuals stuck in the same place, battered by the same forces.
Medearis shines in this debut as an emerging author who understands both the obvious and unspoken rules of various caste systems that converge in our society. He explores them skillfully through a fluid intermixing of characters who can use “slang so thick it bordered on code” side by side with those who own William Merritt Chase paintings and drink from Wedgwood cups. The way they brush against each other is both believable and simultaneously flushed with the acridity one would expect from such interactions. At the same time, Medearis does manage to bring something new to the table: He manages to both stun and thrill with unexpected plot twists and characters who are life-sized and realistic. While you’ll find a few well-known typecasts within these pages, Medearis manages to give them more dimension, life and bite; they never fall into the category of played-out stereotypes and that I appreciated. Restorations Heights offers addictive and authentic prose that moves in cadence with the realism of our everyday lives and interactions with the world around us, something I look for in contemporary writing. Thus, Wil Medearis won me over, and I give his debut novel 4.5 stars.
*I received a copy of this novel from the publisher, Hanover Square Press, via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.