The 1977 New York City blackout is the star of Rutgers University history professor and author James Goodman’s Blackout, which documents the event before, during and after it happened, and how it effected a variety of city residents. Covering the good, the bad and the ugly, Goodman shows us in a jarring blow-by-blow style just how New Yorkers handled a long and dark night of the collective soul.
From the employees and management at Con-Ed who refused to take responsibility until they were left with no other excuses, to the city’s Mayor, police and fire responders, to the people on the streets, the author takes us on a journey into the darker side of a city and the behavior of its inhabitants. Looters and petty thieves have their heyday as store owners struggle to protect their property. Fires break out across the city, the result of bored and violent arsonists and vandals. Police struggle between trying to take control and trying to avoid total chaos. And the power company players cross their fingers and pray that it was lightning that caused this tragic crisis and not their own errors…
In a jarring style that reminded me of the old “Dragnet,” with short, punchy sentences and phrases describing the events that took place as the night crept on, Goodman really offers the reader a sense of being there out on the streets with glass breaking and storefronts burning and people yelling and screaming, in both pain and pleasure, as the blackout took its toll on a city unprepared. At times this style becomes a nuisance, as when we long to really get into the narrative’s flow and stay with a certain person’s experience. Instead, we are jerked around as if we, too, were out on the dark city street trying to stay alive and get home in one piece. While Goodman’s quick-draw talent for telling what happened is unique, it really put me off at times when I truly sought to understand the emotions and concerns of individuals on a deeper level.
Blackout is still an exciting read, filled with stories of heroism, violence, rage and sheer stupidity (lots of sheer stupidity) as humans struggle to deal with the primal state of being in the dark. Goodman succeeds at showing how the simple act of the power going out serves as a catalyst for the complete and utter de-evolution of the human species, making the reader wonder just how capable we are of handling even bigger tragedies with grace, humanity and compassion.