I have always had a soft spot in my heart for New York City, particularly the Lower East Side and Greenwich Village area that existed in the latter half of the Twentieth Century. I’m not the only one. From O. Henry to Kurt Vonnegut to Phillip Roth, the literary world has long chosen that section of the city as its romanticized stomping grounds, with one of my personal favorites, “The Fan Man” by William Kotzwinkle, putting that neighborhood and its denizens, circa the 1970s, front and center–warts and all!
Now Bruce Craven has done the same with his book “Sweet Ride,” shining the spotlight on the East Village of the 1990s.
You might remember Craven from his previous book, “Win or Die: Leadership Secrets from Game of Thrones,” a seminal nonfiction text for the “Leadership Through Fiction” class he teaches at Columbia Business School.
In Sweet Ride, the pendulum swings back into fiction, with Craven diving deep into a retelling of the classic Audrey Hepburn film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” starring protagonist Lilly Lejeune as Holly Golightly. Caught in Lilly’s orbit is George Nichols, a West Coast transplant and newcomer to the East Village scene, the proverbial stranger in a strange land. These characters and their existence in their setting, as well as the finer brushstrokes with which Craven paints this world, give Sweet Ride a strong sense of authenticity.
Thankfully, while the aforementioned Fan Man had a main character–Horse Badorties–who was a less-than-savory product of his times, Sweet Ride’s cast are benign in their aimlessness, and, later on, admirable in their attempts at redemption.
I caught up with Craven recently and asked where his inspiration came from.
“Going back to the late 90s, I was a bartender in the East Village at a place called the Cherry Tavern, and I bartendered there from ‘95 to ‘96,” he said. “It was an edgy, local dive bar, but it kind of morphed into a Nineties hangout for famous models, actors and musicians…. I think there are still CDs of mine in the jukebox.” He added, “There was definitely an outlaw quality of the ‘90s where I was just grateful for being in the city.”
While the first half of Sweet Ride takes place just before the new millennium, the latter half leaps forward to a post-9/11 New York, with the narrative shifting to first-person perspectives from those who existed in Lilly and George’s orbit.
“All the characters have a moment where they look at greatness that slipped away, and they have to figure out how to go forward,” said Craven. “You couldn’t say the ending is happy… but I think the book is very funny. The whole first part of the book is really a romantic comedy. The second part of the book is really a dark comedy of a character who thinks rock and roll should have gone another way.”
He added, “Two of the characters go through a lot of sense of failure. They really struggle with a sense of failure. Through getting out of their own self-involvement, and choosing to care about other people, they find their way to feeling engaged with the world… In a way, they’re looking for what I think we all look for. They’re looking for success and engagement with their career. But they’ve fallen into moments of vanity. They went out there with a certain bravado and got slapped in the face and beaten down, and now they have to regain their confidence.”
There are lessons to be gleaned from the story, but more poignant are the ones stemming from Craven’s creation of the story. Like most novels, the path Sweet Ride took to publication was a long and winding journey that required a heavy dose of perseverance, as well as editorial adaptability.
“I wrote a 1,300-page manuscript and it was exploring everything I loved about New York City,” said Craven. “An editor said I had written the ‘War and Peace’ of the East Village.” Obviously, a manuscript of that size would require some downsizing, which Craven dove into with earnest. “One of the things I did in that ‘Game of Thrones’ class, I would often revisit the publishing journey of Sweet Ride. I never knew it would be published, but I used it as a story about how you have to be resilient.”
How did Craven come up with the title? “I think it just popped in my head. You’re out at night, you’re on the scene, and you’re kind of in this sweet ride of living. Connecting with that scene and living life to the fullest, that’s the sweet ride. They’ve had this amazing sweet ride and it’s starting to turn south, and they have to figure out a way to move forward.”
NYC and the Lower East Side have been home to a number of sweet rides through the ages. Bruce Craven’s Sweet Ride captures its 90’s essence with humor and depth.
Want to read more books set in New York’s East Village? Check out these essential reads about Greenwich Village!