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The smart-mouthed but sensitive runaway socialite Madeline Dare is shocked when she discovers the skeleton of a brutalized three-year-old boy in her own weed-ridden family cemetery outside Manhattan. Determined to see that justice is served, she finds herself examining her own troubled personal history, and the sometimes hidden, sometimes all-too-public class and racial warfare that penetrates every level of society in the savage streets of New York City during the early 1990s.
Madeline is aided in her efforts by a colorful assemblage of friends, relatives, and new acquaintances, each one representing a separate strand of the patchwork mosaic city politicians like to brag about. The result is an unforgettable narrative that relates the causes and consequences of a vicious crime to the wider relationships that connect and divide us all.
Table of Contents
Reading Group Guide
A Preview of Valley of Ashes
So here's what I love about New York City: if someone acts like a dumb asshole and you call them on acting like a dumb asshole, the bystanders are happy about it.
Anywhere else I've ever lived they just think I'm a bitch.
Also, in Manhattan the Chinese food is excellent and they deliver, which to me counts as pretty much the acme of human achievement, to date. Especially with free cold sesame noodles.
I'm sorry, but if you pick up your phone and all you can get them to bring you for sustenance is crappy lukewarm national-chain pizza, you do not live in civilization.
Having just spent four years out in what is euphemistically known as "the heartland," I was overjoyed to be back in the city of my birth.
It was an early fall day and totally gorgeous out, and my mother and I were walking down lower Sixth Avenue. We were supposed to be picking up a cake for a party that night, and I was in a most excellent mood.
Mom looked like she'd rather be weeding something or moving piles of rocks around or one of those other kinds of strenuous activities one gets up to out in the country.
"Must be this one," she said, pointing toward a slightly ratty bakery on the opposite side of the street from us, just above Waverly Place.
We sprinted across Sixth against the light, Mom leading the way. She hadn't actually lived in Manhattan since 1965, but some habits die hard.
There was this brittle-looking skinny faux-blonde chick standing next to the bakery's door. Her makeup was kabuki/stewardess, and she teetered atop painfully chic Bergdorf-bitch slingbacks.
I wondered anew why some women were so desperate to wear "fuck-me" shoes. I have long preferred "fuck-you shoes."
Faux-blonde chick pulled the door open but then just stood there, like she was appalled to realize she might for once actually ingest something besides diuretics and a half-stalk of celery.
Mom, meanwhile, ran a hand through her own short, dark hair and breezed in past her.
Stunned at this effrontery, the woman sniped, "So what am I now, a doorman?"
Oh for chrissake, lady, get the hell over yourself.
As she was still just standing there, I muttered, "What, you got some problem with doormen?" and strode on inside myself.
The bakery's interior was dark compared to the sidewalk's mellow late-summer bloom of light. It took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust, so I just sucked in the scents of butter and vanilla perfuming the small establishment.
Mom asked about our party cake up at the display counter while a gang of confectionary aficionados sampled tortes and bombes and éclairs at a dozen tiny tables crowded together along the black-and-white-tiled floor.
Just as the proprietress set a pink box on the countertop in front of my mother, I felt a set of Flintstones-pterodactyl claws latch on to my shoulder.
The now-even-more-pissed-off door-lady yanked me around to shriek, "You bitch!" right in my face—so close I got nailed with a constellation of spit flecks.
"Um," I said, trying to back off a little, "I beg your pardon?"
She gripped my shoulder harder and started jabbing me in the chest with a bony finger. "Who. The. Hell." Poke. Poke. Poke. "Do you think you are?"
The final poke practically broke her french-manicured nail off, right in the middle of the LEFTY'S TATTOO AND PIERCING, CHULA VISTA logo on my best secondhand black T-shirt.
"I think I'm Madeline Ludlam Fabyan Dare," I said, raising my chin to look down my nose at her. "Why?"
"Bitch!" spat my scrawny nemesis, redundantly.
All the people at the little tables were watching now, pastry-loaded forks paused in midair.
Aware of our audience, psycho-babe dropped her hands from my person and just stood there, fists clenched, vibrating like an irate tuning fork.
"Oh, please," I said. "Like it's the end of the fucking world if you held the door for someone?"
Her right hand came back up, finger extended. "You!" Poke. "Need!" Poke. "To change!" Poke-poke. "Your goddamn attitude!" PokepokePOKEpoke.
She drove me backwards toward the counter's plate-glass front, behind which rested a stage-lit panorama of buttercream whimsy.
I snapped my hand around her wimpy little calcium-deprived wrist before she could finger-stab me again.
"And you," I said, tightening my grip, "need to change your goddamn medication."
A couple of onlookers started laughing.
I let go of her wrist. The witch teetered once on those nasty stilettos before dropping her head and scuttling away.
The door banged open, then whooshed closed.
A big rough-looking guy at a tiny corner table raised his foam cup of espresso toward me in appreciation, and the rest of the patrons dropped their forks for a round of applause.
Mom stepped up beside me bearing the pink cake box, now tied shut with red-and-white baker's twine.
"Dude," I said, grinning at her, "I fucking love New York."
It was Sue who'd found our apartment originally, back when she was still a film student at NYU. I'd known her since boarding school when she'd walked up and introduced herself to me one September morning because we were both class presidents that year—her freshman and me junior, respectively. I'd asked her to look out for my little sister when Pagan came east with me to join Sue's class the following year.
The apartment was a prewar two-bedroom in Chelsea—West Sixteenth between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, no doorman. Sue now hustled her ass off shouting into phones for a production company that made TV commercials, uptown, which taught her how to wring maximum juice from the city on our pooled crappy paychecks.
She briefed us on who had the best Chinese delivery (Empire Szechuan Greenwich, not Empire Szechuan Village, though they were a mere block apart), the best bagels (H&H), and the closest place we could get same-day dry-cleaning without paying extra if we showed up by seven and made nice with the counter lady.
Pagan and Sue shared the smaller bedroom, and when they'd needed new roommates in June, my husband, Dean, and I had schlepped down from the Berkshires.
We'd come to New York hoping he'd get into a management-training program with the Transit Authority. He'd done contract work on the subways during his Upstate youth, but to garner a permanent gig it turned out you needed an Uncle Vinnie in the union. So now I was taking book-catalog phone orders while Dean sent out résumés and did odd carpentry jobs for our friends' bosses and parents around the city.
There was money to be made for any likely young man with a power drill, given the stunning proportion of shop-class flunkees amongst Manhattan's well-heeled—one guy even paid him fifty bucks to hook up a VCR—but the gigs weren't exactly leading toward anything Dean wanted to be when he grew up.
And then there was the whole bored-boomer-wives-ogling-thestrapping-young-blond-guy-in-coveralls routine, which didn't sit any too well with me despite my intrepid spouse's continued reassurance that, say, being met at the door of a strange apartment by some fifty-year-old StairMaster-fiend wrapped in nothing but a bedsheet left him rather more embarrassed than titillated.
I was explaining all this to Mom as I followed her into the lobby of our building.
"Not a fitted sheet, I hope," she said, as we reached the stairs.
"Dean didn't specify," I said. "Except to say it had cartoon trains on it so he figured it was from her son's room."
"Trains? Good God… hardly seems as though she was even trying, does it?"
Mom laughed, but the idea of my marriage being even vaguely at risk made me dizzy with angst. Dean was my refuge, the bulwark of my very sanity.
"That still means it was a twin sheet," I said, my voice echoing in the stairwell as we climbed upward. "So she wasn't exactly, like, swamped in fabric."
My mother shrugged. "Probably didn't have the figure for a negligee."
"Way to be maternal, Mom."
Having been raised in a landscape of divorce-shattered families, I considered matrimony a construct of gossamer fragility—equal parts swan's down, lighter fluid, and willing suspension of disbelief.
Mom and I had reached the landing and I opened our apartment's front door, following her into its narrow front hallway.
"I'll just put the cake in your icebox," she said, ducking around a half-dozen trays jammed with the tiny paper cups from Sue's dentist that awaited vodka-spiked liquid for the evening's Jell-O shots.
I thanked her for buying the cake, which I hadn't expected, and wandered toward the living room.
Pagan and Sue were rolling on a second coat of the paint we'd picked out that morning at Janovic, up near Twenty-third, Sue precarious on the top rail of a stepladder, Pague balanced all nonchalant on one thin arm of the hideous seventies-Danish-tweed sofa that had been gleefully abandoned by the previous tenants.
A stranger would've pegged me and Sue as the sisters. We weren't each other's long-lost secret twins or anything, but we both had green eyes, darkish blonde hair, and beaky noses.
My actual sibling, meanwhile, was brunette like Mom and looked straight out of Gauguin, had the man ever happened to paint the girl's All-Tahiti soccer captain carrying her surfboard down the beach.
"I still can't believe we chose this stupid color," said Pagan, pushing a lock of hair off her forehead. " 'Desert Blossom' my ass."
I considered the rancid pink-orange walls. "More like 'St. Joseph's Baby Acid.' "
"Pepto-peach ass-baby," said Sue. "But it looked totally apricot back at the store."
"Ass-baby?" said Pagan. "What the hell is an ass-baby?"
"Fuck off," said Sue.
Mom stepped into the room and squinted at the glare. "Did you guys take the paint chip outside and look at it in the sunshine? They probably had fluorescent lights."
"Maybe it will fade?" I asked.
Mom shook her head. "Reminds me of the time I tried dyeing the turnips blue for Thanksgiving. Complete disaster."
"That was nasty," I said. "Crème de la hippo."
"Crème de la hippo shit, more like," said Pagan.
Sue stepped down off the ladder for a re-dip in the paint tray just as a car alarm went off outside. The shock of noise made her drop the roller, splattering fat plops of orange up the legs of her jeans.
"Fucking yuppies," she yelled over the flamenco yelps and Bronx cheers. "I'm practically ready to bash in all their windshields just to get it over with."
The noise died down and Mom looked around the room. "Keep the lights dim tonight."
"And you'd better put extra vodka in the Jell-O shots," said Pagan, pointing at me. "This is like meeting your hangover before you even start drinking."
Dean rang up from out front, needing help wrangling the keg and a case of Smirnoff upstairs. Sue buzzed him in and propped the front door open.
The elevator dinged a minute later, and Dean walked a hand truck backwards down our narrow entry hall, ducking his golden head a reflexive inch to pass beneath the living-room doorway's lintel.
At six-five, my strapping farmboy spouse was scaled too large for city life. We were lucky to have this much space—a studio apartment would've felt like sharing a starter aquarium with Godzilla.
I trailed my fingers along his hip as he wheeled past, which made him turn toward me and grin.
"Hey, Bunny," he said.
Then he saw the new living-room color and winced. "Don't tell me—All-You-Can-Eat Peyote Day up at the paint store?"
I helped him muscle the keg into a dryish corner. "Nah, we figured it'd be cheaper to shove Oompa Loompas through a woodchipper."
"Hardy har har," said Pagan, climbing down off the sofa.
"I may have just contracted a new disease," said Dean, shading his eyes with one hand.
"What?" I asked.
"Fuck," said Sue. "We forgot ice."
"I should get going," said Mom. "It's a long way back up to Maine."
"You sure we can't convince you to stay for the party?" I asked.
"I've been invited to crew in a regatta tomorrow," she said, "on a Hinckley."
Only those with suicidal tendencies dare stand between my mother and a boat. She'd been, like, the Mario Andretti of sailing—even winning the Women's Nationals immediately after marrying my father.
Dad sat out their honeymoon on the beach at Coronado. Mom made Sports Illustrated. The woman is still so psycho-competitive on the water that by fourth grade I'd joined Pony Club in self-defense.
Pagan's the yachty kid, along with our baby half-brother, Trace. But Pague and Mom are the only ones who still routinely bet each other a hundred bucks to see who can tie a bowline faster. I credit this to my sister being named after Mom's first boat, a Snipe she'd sunk off Cooper's Bluff in Oyster Bay trying to ride out a sudden squall in 1957.
Trace had traded in sailing for surfing, now that he was living with his dad on Oahu and trying to graduate from the fourth high school he'd attended in as many years.
I kissed Mom's cheek.
"Wear sunscreen," I said, "and don't scare the lobsters."
Pague and I walked her to the door.
Mom glanced back at us from the top of the stairwell.
"Talk to strangers!" she said, twinkling her fingers in farewell.
Sue and I had just finished pouring the final tray of Jell-O shots when Dean joined us in the kitchen.
"I'm taking dinner votes," he said. "So far we've got one for Benny's Burritos and one for Indian delivery."
"I hate Indian!" yelled Pagan from the living room.
"Philistine!" Dean yelled back.
"Let's do pizza," I said. "I'm totally broke."
"I'm down with pizza," said Sue. "We want delivery?"
"Let's walk it," said Dean. "We can just get slices."
"Cool." I picked up the finished Jell-O tray and shouldered the freezer open.
Sue shook her head. "Not enough room in there."
"Sure there is," I said. "Just grab that thing of Bustelo."
She snaked an arm past me to pull the yellow coffee can clear. "Still not gonna fit. No fucking way."
"Way," I said. "Five bucks."
Sue took my wager with a nod. "Sucker bet."
I raised the tray to eye level, then tilted it with care—two inches down toward the right. Syrupy Jell-O flowed toward the lip of each little paper mouthwash-cup, bulging but not spilling over.
I slid the tray slowly home, its upper left edge shaving a pinstripe of whiskered frost from the freezer ceiling.
"Son of a bitch," said Sue.
"Surface tension," I replied, closing the freezer door. "Kiss my ass and buy me dinner."
I may lack the nautical gene, but don't ever play me for money.
The party was roaring by nine o'clock that night. Somebody'd brought a strobe light, and we had a little vintage Funkadelic cued up on the CD player, "Maggot Brain" throbbing out our open windows into the sultry-for-September night. There was a gaggle of people doing bong hits on the fire escape, and dozens more smashed up against each other in the living room, hallway, kitchen, and both bedrooms.
I'd just made the circuit back from the bathroom and was now stationed next to the front door, cold beer in hand. Not like I had to drive home, but six Jell-O shots was nearing the limit, even for me.
Sue's friend Mike buzzed up from the lobby, and I held the door open for him, sticking my head out into the cooler, quieter air of our second-story hallway.
His blond head soon bobbed up behind the staircase's horizon, and I watched the rest of his skinny frame bounce into view, a foot at a time, until he'd stepped onto the landing's chipped and gritty tiny-hexagonal-tile floor.
"Madeline," he said, "I think I just got mugged in your vestibule."
"Um, Mike? How could you not know?"
He smiled up at the ceiling fixture. "This guy at work had some great acid. So it's, like, entirely possible that I just hallucinated the whole thing?"
"Do you still have your wallet?" I asked.
He patted his jacket pockets, then checked his jeans, fore and aft.
"It's gone," he said, grinning even wider. "What a relief!"
"Dude, your pupils are like Frisbees," I said.
He pointed at my red plastic cup. "Hey, is that a beer?"
"Last time I checked."
"Would you share some with me?"
"If you come in, you can have one of your very own."
He patted me on the shoulder. "I'm so glad I know you."
I took his hand and led him gently inside.
Sue stood in the kitchen doorway, and the music was even louder.
I leaned toward her, yelling "Mike's tripping and he just got mugged and I think he needs help finding the keg" about a foot away from her ear.
"I'll take care of it," she yelled back.
"Keep him away from the Jell-O," I said, just as the living-room speakers boomed out A Tribe Called Quest chanting "Mr. Dinkins will you please be my May-or?"
Sue gave me a thumbs-up and propelled Mike toward the living room.
The buzzer went off again and I didn't bother trying to identify the persons at the other end of the intercom before pushing the button to let them in.
If it was the muggers, we could all jump them and get Mike's wallet back, worst case.
Luckily, it was instead my college pal Sophia and a friend she'd called about bringing along for the evening.
Scarlet-lipped Sophia leaned forward to hug me hello, her mass of dark curls tickling my cheek.
"This is Cate Ludlam!" she yelled near my ear. "The one I told you about! Your cousin!"
I dragged them both into the kitchen. Cate introduced herself again, holding out her hand to shake. She was a little older and a touch shorter than me, with straight brown hair and eyes that made me think of Edith Piaf.
"Sophia thinks we might be related," I exclaimed over some newly blasting B-52s song.
Cate shrugged her shoulders and smiled, pointing to one ear. The B-52s chanted, "What's that on your head? A wig!"
I closed the kitchen door. We could still feel the thump of the bassline, but at least the overall decibel-age had dropped from "skin-blistering" to a mere "painfully loud."
"That's so much better," I said, pulling a fresh tray of Jell-O shots from the freezer and offering them around.
I said L'chaim and we each tossed one back.
"What were you asking just now?" asked Cate.
"Whether the two of you might be cousins," said Sophia, passing Cate a second little paper cup before taking one herself.
"One of my middle names is Ludlam," I explained. "After my great-great-grandmother."
Cate tossed back her second shot. "We're all related. Only three brothers came over from England with that surname."
"But there's Ludlam and Ludlum. What kind are you?" I asked.
"L-A-M," said Cate. "One brother went to New Jersey and changed the spelling—we call his branch Spawn of Obadiah. Long Island ones kept the 'A.' "
"Same as you, Maddie?" asked Sophia.
"Everyone in my family cemetery spells it with 'A,' " I said. "We probably burned the 'U' people as heretics, unless they were willing to convert—then refused to bury them anyway."
"Where's your cemetery?" Cate asked.
"On Centre Island, in the middle of Oyster Bay."
"I've heard of that one," she said.
"I'd be happy to give you a tour."
"I'd love it," she said. "And I'd be happy to show you mine."
"You've got one too? Awesome," I said.
"In Queens," said Cate. "It's called Prospect—the original burial ground for the village of Jamaica, starting in the sixteen hundreds."
"Are you guys still buried there?" I asked.
"Oh, no," she said. "It's been derelict for decades. I only found out about it a year ago."
"Were you researching family history?" asked Sophia.
"No," said Cate. "Someone abandoned a couple of dogs inside the fence and a neighborhood woman rescued them. She saw the name Ludlam on the chapel by the front gate and started calling up any of us she could find listings for."
"What's it like?" asked Sophia.
"At that point it was four acres of jungle," said Cate.
"What about the chapel?" I asked.
"Oh, the chapel…" said Cate with a dreamy little smile. "It was a stinking, sorry mess filled with garbage and crack vials, but my God, there's still something about it…. The little place just hooked me, you know?"
"The addictive poignance of the small, neglected ruin," I said. "I know it well."
Cate laughed. "I've started rounding up volunteers to help with the brush clearing, Wednesday afternoons. Would you like to join us this week?"
"I'd be honored," I said, raising my cup. "And I think we should imbibe another shot in celebration of our newfound genealogical commonality."
"Hear, hear!" said Cate, taking another paper-clad portion from the tray.
"To cousins," added Sophia, lifting her own, "and the lapidary allure of tiny woebegone places."
We knocked back our gelatinous cocktails just as the kitchen door flew open and a half-dozen partiers tumbled into the room, demanding Jell-O themselves as the music blared up to an absolutely depilatory volume.
I looked at Cate and Sophia and shrugged, pointing toward the living room.
We threaded our way down the crowded hallway, slipping sideways and single file between knots of dancing bodies.
I reached the stereo and eased off on the Velvet Underground's volume, only to have Lou Reed's voice overridden by a street-concerto of car alarms.
Sue was out on the fire escape waving the bong overhead as she conducted a group-stoner cheer of "Die Yuppie Scum! Die Yuppie Scum!"
Her gestural enthusiasm made her tip backwards and I shoved my way toward the window, arms outstretched as my heartbeat went bossa nova, but luck and the thin iron railing kept her from tumbling to the sidewalk below.
"Perfect!" yelled Pagan into my ear. "It's not a party until Sue falls down!"
Sunday we were all hungover as shit, stumbling out of bed for coffee well after noon. Dean and Sue and Pagan decided they wanted to go Rollerblading after a long, slow brunch at our local diner, the Hollywood. I decided they were crazy and stayed put.
Some people's bodies say "Go! Go! Go!" Mine counters with "Fuck it, let's lie down with a book on the sofa." And that goes double after a Hollywood bacon-cheeseburger.
It was two hours before the exercise fanatics came home, but I wasn't tired enough to nap. Sunday afternoon has always struck me as a horrible stretch of time to spend solo. If you made it into crayons they'd all turn out burnt sienna.
I picked up the phone to see if I could find Astrid, another boarding-school pal. We were the kind of friends who got in touch once a year or so but always seemed to resume the conversation midsentence.
My own social pretensions were of the shopworn poor-relation Mayflower variety, but there wasn't even a phrase in American to suitably describe Astrid.
You had BCBG in French: bon chic, bon genre, but that's rather like "classy" in English. Parisians of Astrid's own ilk would've preferred comme il faut, though I figured "living on reds, vitamin C, and cocaine" more accurately described her life amongst that rarefied tribe of brittle-whippet polyglots who traveled by Concorde and gave me the bends.
She was a British/Florentine beauty who hadn't lived anywhere longer than three months since we'd graduated, back in '81—just kept doing this jagged über-Euro party-girl circuit of London and LA and Palm Beach and the Upper East Side.
It was pointless trying to keep an up-to-date address or phone number for her on hand. I relied on directory-information operators to tell me whether our orbits had aligned whenever I was in New York.
This time I'd put it off for a couple of months, what with moving, looking for work, and stowing my furniture and old Porsche in a friend-of-Mom's barn on Long Island. You know: life. All the grownup crap I so royally sucked at.
I dialed 411, gritting my teeth in anticipation of having to spell Astrid's surname for the operator. It was Niro-de-Barile, shortened by Dean to "Nutty Buddy" in the very first phone message he'd written down for me the week he and I moved in together back in Syracuse.
Today's operator indeed had a listing for her—in the East Fifties, no surprise.
I dialed, expecting to get her machine, and was surprised by her live actual "Hello."
"Hey," I said.
"Madissima, how the hell are you?"
"Decent," I said. "And at long last actually living in the city, thank God. You?"
"I've been meaning to phone you, in fact, but couldn't remember what they call that last godforsaken town you were living in, after Syracuse—"
"The aptly named. How could one have forgotten?"
"With great pleasure and appalling haste," I said. "What's your news?"
"Darling, it appears I've gotten married."
I heard her blow a stream of cigarette smoke against her phone's mouthpiece. "Last Saturday, actually. Decided I was overdue."
"Who's the lucky winner?"
"Well, Antonini was out of town, so I stuck a pin in my address book and landed on Christoph."
"Was that the polo guy or the one with a Bugatti?"
"The Swiss one."
"There was a Swiss one?"
"I brought him up for drinks the summer you were all crammed into that place on Park and Eighty-ninth? He said he'd never seen a filthier bathroom?"
"I thought you were mad for Prentice that year."
"Fuck me, I'd have had to live in Boston. Anathema."
"I'm rather fond of Switzerland," I said. "Hot cheese. Subtitles in three languages. Not much for foreplay, if memory serves, but excellent value overall. Congratulations to him, and best wishes to you."
"We had great fun. Chartered a plane to Southampton."
"My least favorite place on earth, but whatever."
"And how is Dean?" she asked.
"Fine, thank you. Looking for work."
"He's an inventor or something?"
"Or something," I said.
"I told Mummie you'd married a cabinetmaker."
I laughed. "How'd she take it?"
"Oh, she was quite, quite pleased for you. She said, 'How marvelous, just like David Linley.' "
I cracked up.
"Don't laugh, Madeline," said Astrid. "One has to break these things to Mummie gently. She's not accustomed to reality."
"Oh, please. I mean, admit it, the image of me married to anyone even slightly resembling the offspring of Princess Margaret is pretty fucking funny."
I heard the click of Astrid's lighter as she lit a fresh Marlboro.
"Oh, and of course Camilla was asking after you," she continued.
- On Sale
- Mar 30, 2010
- Page Count
- 432 pages
- Grand Central Publishing