Empire Rising A Novel

Thomas Kelly




Trade Paperback

400 Pages



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A New York Times Notable Book
A Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year

It is 1930, and ground has just been broken for The Empire State Building, dubbed "the Eighth Wonder of the World." One of the thousands of men working high above the city is Michael Briody, an Irish immigrant torn between his desire to make a new life in America and his pledge to gather money and arms for the Irish Republican cause. When he meets Grace Masterson, an alluring artist who is depicting the great skyscraper's rise from her houseboat on the East River, Briody's life turns exhilarating—and dangerous, for Grace is also a paramour of Johnny Farrell, Mayor Jimmy Walker's liaison with Tammany Hall, and the New York underworld.

Their heartbreaking love story—which takes place both in the rough neighborhoods of the Bronx and amid the swanky nightlife of the '21' Club—is also a chronicle of the city's passage from a working-class enclave to a world-class metropolis, and a vivid reimagining of the conflict that pitted the Tammany Hall political machine against the boundlessly ambitious Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

With Payback and The Rackets, Thomas Kelly has shown himself to be a master of the urban thriller. With Empire Rising he takes his work to a new level. In his telling of the story of the people who made America's most distinctivecity, New York is brought exuberantly to life.


Praise for Empire Rising

"Empire Rising is an ode to urban grease; I'll never look at that grand old building the same way again . . . There is a compelling muscularity to [Kelly's] work—the plots barrel along, the characters are wildly colorful—and there is a dead-on authenticity to the dialogue and the atmospherics. There is also a bracing, and rare, appreciation for the sheer satisfaction of honest work . . . Kelly is a big-hearted and admirably ambitious writer. He wants to show the city top to bottom, from Jimmy Walker's boudoir to the Irish pubs in the South Bronx where the construction workers drink their paychecks . . . Kelly's city is palpably alive and passionate, and very recognizably New York, especially in the vertiginous rush of upward mobility, the fissures it causes within families, the loyalties strained, the traditions lost."—Joe Klein, The New York Times Book Review

"Kelly mixes his fictional characters with historical ones, and the dialogue and atmospherics are pitch-perfect."—Ihsan Taylor, The New York Times Book Review

"Kelly has obviously done his research. New York in 1930 shines through the pages with high resolution. Kelly gives us impressive cameos of Babe Ruth, the photographer Lewis Hines, and Cab Calloway, as well as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose presidential ambitions drive much of the political deal-making in the novel . . . The swiftness with which Kelly moves from the atmosphere of the job site to his cataloging of the manifold processes conveys the feeling of exhilaration he achieves throughout the book . . . Through his seemingly effortless use of research as well as his unpretentious prose style, Kelly reveals genuine talent."—Peter Campion, San Francisco Chronicle

"The plot is filled with murky intrigue and dirty secrets . . . [Kelly] knows how to tell stories and write muscular sentences."—USA Today

"The ferocious struggle for survival has rarely seemed so entertaining."—Dan Cryer, Newsday

"This is an extraordinary novel, teeming with the sweat and risk of skilled labor, the abstractions of belief, the aching need for love."—Peter Hamill

"Empire Rising is, at bottom, a love story, told by one of my favorite authors: a writer of candor, grace, wit, and skill, who writes about the New York where the unique spirit of the Irish hovers over every sidewalk, building, street, and alleyway."—James McBride, author of The Color of Water

"Empire Rising is a vivid, evocative, enthralling tale of gangsters, pols, an enduring New York mystery, and hard, joyful work. This is historical fiction writing at its best."—Kevin Baker, author of Paradise Alley

"Empire Rising is vivid, vibrant, and raw, a story about beauty and corruption, idealism and violence, as intricate as New York City itself."—Lauren Belfer, author of City of Light

"At the heart of this audacious novel is a unique love story between two 1930s immigrants, both so compellingly drawn that one almost forgets the scaffolds that hold them together: corruption, power, greed, art, and desire."—Colum McCann, author of Dancer and This Side of Brightness

"Tom Kelly's labors recall those he chronicles in the creation of New York's signature skyscraper, piling mind over matter and then matter over mind until we reach striking heights."—Edward Conlon, author of Blue Blood

"An audacious and compelling narrative by a master storyteller: tough, tender, and beautifully imagined, this intensely American tale is universal in its scope."—Joseph O'Connor, author of Star of the Sea

"The construction of the Empire State Building in 1930—a display of 'the great industrial frenzy of America' in a time of Depression and Prohibition—forms the background for this savage urban melodrama. Like Kelly's previous fiction, his third novel is a knowledgeable, vigorously detailed portrayal of big-city political and fiscal skullduggery and corruption, featuring a generous host of brawling characters . . . Kelly keeps it all moving, juxtaposing worksite scenes high above the city, meetings in miscellaneous smoke-filled rooms, hotel rendezvous between Grace and her married lover Farrell, and violence on the perilous streets where men marked by the city's rival Irish, Italian, and Jewish mobs suffer 'justice.' The supporting cast includes such nicely drawn presences as powerful racketeer Tough Tommy Touhey, crooked Judge Crater (tucked securely into Touhey's pocket until he undertakes an ill-advised double-cross), and Briody's firebrand Irish Republican landlord, Danny Casey, as well as cameo appearances by Babe Ruth, a sexually frisky FDR, and heavyweight pug Primo Carnera . . . Kelly's mastery of narrative drive holds the attention, and few who start this white-hot novel will fail to finish it."—Kirkus Reviews

"'The Empire State Building will dominate the Manhattan skyline,' all New Yorkers realize in 1930 as construction proceeds, but then, too, 'nothing gets built in Gotham without a kickback.' Thus is the basic premise of this, to borrow construction language, riveting novel evoking in authentic detail the underside of New York City politics during the era of Mayor Jimmy Walker. Kelly's story is basically the tale of a love triangle between Johnny Farrell, an important aide to the mayor; Johnny's artist girlfriend, Grace Masterson; and construction worker and part-time boxer Michael Briody. Each of these characters represents, without the flatness of type, a significant element of the fabric of New York City as the Empire State Building rises ethereally above the street-level realities of hard economic times and how big-city government works. Kelly successfully melds actual historical figures and fictional ones, but in the end, it is New York City itself that emerges as the central character here: a place that makes people the way they are."—Brad Hooper, Booklist

"'The biggest building in the world calls for the biggest payoff'—so declares Johnny Farrell, fixer to New York City mayor Jimmy Walker. It's 1930, and ground has just been broken for the Empire State Building. Enter Farrell's beautiful mistress, Grace, an artist sketching the building's construction, and riveter Michael Briody, who moonlights for mob boss Tommy Touhey and runs guns for the IRA. They fall passionately in love and struggle with being stuck in the glue of corruption. 'Everybody is out for themselves. Why not us?' argues Grace. Kelly unravels a thrilling tale of crooked pols, tough-guy cons, sadistic cops, and priapic judges. His use of actual historical figures (Walker, Al Smith, and FDR) draws the inevitable comparison with E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, but Kelly owes as much to great crime novelists like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Michael Connolly. This is a superior action novel and a great love story that will appeal to a wide audience."—Library Journal

"Construction was started on the Empire State Building on St. Patrick's Day, March 17, 1930. It was just as the Depression was beginning to squeeze America in its death grip and every job was sacred. Kelly, who created first-rate working-class heroes in Payback and The Rackets, takes a fascinating look at how New York City was run at the end of the Jazz Age—by bribe, kickback and political machination. The characters are tough and vengeful: Michael Briody, steelworker, WWI vet, IRA gunman; Johnny Farrell, a 'narrowback' lawyer who functions as the mayor's bagman; Grace Masterson, a beautiful painter who lives on a houseboat on the East River, holds dark secrets and counts both Briody and Farrell as lovers; and Egan, the governor's dour henchman. Historical figures of the time round out the cast: FDR, the governor of New York, making sure that nothing will hinder him on the way to the White House; Mayor James J. (Jimmy) Walker, a dapper rogue and master practitioner of 'honest graft'; Judge Joseph Force Crater, stooge of Tammany, destined to be eclipsed in a legendary way; and Al Smith, the 'Happy Warrior,' a political has-been now in charge of the construction of the world's tallest building. Kelly weaves a fascinating tale that captures the cadences and decadence of art deco New York, where desperate working-class have-nots and powerful elite swells collide violently in a nation on the brink of great change."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Thomas Kelly

  • Thomas Kelly is the author of two previous novels: Payback, called "the best story about New York's labor unions, corrupt contractors and organized crime since On the Waterfront" (San Francisco Chronicle); and The Rackets, described as "an elegy for the city's old Irish working class, and even for its tangled, unavoidable dealings with the Mafia" (The New York Times Book Review). Kelly, who worked for ten years in construction, is a graduate of Fordham University and Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He lives in New York City.




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