Brian Platzer’s new novel, Bed-Stuy Is Burning, unfolds with a “ripped from the headlines” feel. This is partly because its subject matter is so topical, exploring urban neighborhoods’ racial and class tensions following the murders of young black men by white policemen. The novel delivers a plausible blow-by-blow of how stop-and-frisk policing in urban areas gives way to police violence—and how angry tweetstorms spill over into physical confrontations.
The spark that lights the fire in Bed-Stuy Is Burning—a black child’s murder by police in a neighborhood park—closely parallels tragedies that occurred with infuriating regularity as Platzer was writing the book…and will occur in the months following its publication. In that sense, the novel is contemporary in its concerns.
But because it portrays a race riot in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, Bed-Stuy Is Burning hazards unavoidable comparisons to a movie now nearly 30 years old: Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), which was largely inspired by racial violence that began outside a Queens pizzeria in 1986.
Perhaps the most striking divergence between Bed-Stuy Is Burning and Do the Right Thing is the vast class difference at its core. Do the Right Thing dramatizes racial tensions between white store-owners and black residents in Bed-Stuy in the 1980s. Much like the Roxbury and Southie neighborhoods that squared off in the Boston busing battles of the 1970s, the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bed-Stuy and Bensonhurst that clash in Do the Right Thing are essentially racially segregated working-class communities situated in uncomfortable proximity to one another. Bed-Stuy Is Burning, by contrast, captures a formerly all-black neighborhood in uneasy transition, centering on two white yuppies and their infant son, who have recently moved in after purchasing a historic Bed-Stuy brownstone for $1.3 million.
Aaron is a disgraced ex-rabbi racked with spiritual doubt, who lost his job when he was caught using temple funds to pay off gambling debts. More recently, Aaron has cashed in on his loss of faith and penchant for gambling with a job at a Wall Street investment firm. He’s been successful enough to wear thousand-dollar suits and purchase the most expensive house in a trending Brooklyn neighborhood. His girlfriend, Amelia, writes sardonic celebrity profiles for popular magazines. In the disillusioned aftermath of an ugly divorce, Amelia questions the value of her work and her ability to commit to Aaron and their infant son, Simon.
When teenagers take to the streets to avenge 12-year-old Jason Blau’s murder by the police, Aaron and Amelia’s house comes under siege. Barely a borough removed from Garth Risk Hallberg’s 2015 bestseller City On Fire, Platzer’s book lacks City On Fire’s majestic sweep, opting instead for the claustrophobic confinement of riding out a riot inside an embattled Brooklyn brownstone while chunks of concrete carom off the bars on the windows.
Bed-Stuy Is Burning, with its near-cartoonish portrayal of former NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton as a self-aggrandizing chief who arrives on the scene determined to contain the conflict within Bed-Stuy, has much to say about underlying institutional problems. But Platzer’s book overestimates the power of individual connection to subdue racial unrest—or at least the capacity of a speech-making white man to sway even the most hostile audience.
It’s not clear if Platzer is attempting anything as grandiose as teaching readers about racism in Bed-Stuy Is Burning. But the pivotal moment in the book comes somewhat implausibly when Aaron reclaims his rabbinical mien (if not his faith in God) to deliver a parable from the book of Genesis to the African-American insurgents at his door.
In its more believable moments, Bed-Stuy Is Burning portrays circumstances in which inherited privilege trumps the absence of overt racism, suggesting that there are gaps good intentions can’t bridge. The book is an engaging, provocative read, even in episodes that strain credulity like Aaron’s sermon on the stoop.
Platzer even delivers a brilliant false ending that complicates the story’s outcome and arguably redeems the whole enterprise. The unexpected second ending brings a sense of balance to the book—not unlike the paired quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X that linger on the screen at the close of Do the Right Thing—concluding Bed-Stuy Is Burning with fitting ambiguity.
Steve Nathans-Kelly is a writer and editor based in Ithaca, New York.