A sign — “May your fortunes never sink” — hangs above the front door of the hotel, the setting for Adam O’Fallon Price’s newly published “The Hotel Neversink” (Tin House). The palatial place is named for the Neversink River, which is close to upstate Liberty, where the hotel claims the town’s highest point. A dark mystery runs through this novel of the Catskills.
While it has some of the romance of “Dirty Dancing,” the elegance of Mrs. Maisel’s summer getaway and the humor of “Catskills on Broadway,” “The Hotel Neversink” is a more somber view of the grand era of the Catskills, when thousands of hotels, bungalow colonies and rooming houses created a vacation paradise for urban Jews. Written with authenticity and compassion, it is one of few literary novels to depict the once vibrant Jewish culture and its decline. That Price is not Jewish, not from the area and was never a guest in these mountain resorts — he first visited in 2015, while a graduate student at Cornell — makes his accomplishment all the more striking.
“A generational novel about a Jewish family is not a subject I initially would have felt qualified to tackle,” Price tells The Jewish Week in an interview. “I was first drawn by the hotels themselves, which are so singular in American history as a phenomenon. And, of course, you can’t write about them without writing about Jewish people and the 20th-century immigrant experience.”
The novel opens with the history of the castle-like main building of the Neversink Hotel, with its turrets, parapets and more than 90 bedrooms. Built by a rags-to-riches tycoon who lost his fortune in 1929 and then took his life in 1931, it was sold in auction to a local Jewish innkeeper named Asher Sikorsky, who borrowed every penny he could to pay for it. The narrative then shifts back in time to the family’s origins on a struggling farm in Silesia; the family’s experience reads like a folk tale.
Asher built up the Neversink and his wife Amshe’s home cooking of traditional foods nurtured the guests, who were thought to be “for life.” Jeanie Sikorsky, who succeeded her father, sounds like Jennie Grossinger, the matriarch and grand hostess of her family’s hotel, warmly greeting all the guests, who might include star athletes, performers and Harry Truman, who stayed twice in the Neversink’s Presidential Suite. Price captures the enchantment, optimism and heimish glamour.
A quick read, the novel is a family century-long saga, a love story, a portrait of a place and a tale of suspense — a child disappears from the hotel, and then others go missing in the area — that unfolds through alternate chapters: They are told in the voices of the matriarch Jeanie; her son, who takes over running the hotel; his wife, who first came to the hotel as a guest and imagines other lives she might have led; the hotel housekeeper, who steals something every day; the hotel detective; Jeanie’s granddaughter, who moves back to the hotel to help out as the place is fading; and another granddaughter, who becomes a celebrated author, years after she too was abducted at the hotel and survives. The chapters could be stand-alone short stories; the housekeeper’s story appears in the June issue of Harper’s.
Each character, drawn through his or her own words, is intriguing, imperfect and familiar. While he doesn’t get his own chapter, Sander Levin the barkeeper is a memorable character too, behind the bar in a white tux, never missing a day of work over decades.
About writing about Jewish people, Price says, “In 2019, I wanted to be careful about appropriating someone else’s culture. I was very aware of that, both in terms of doing a lot of research to get things right, and staying away from certain things, like the Holocaust — it’s not my place.”
Even in decay, you can see how beautiful Grossinger’s was. You can feel its soul even though it’s dead.
He says that the story of the rise and decline of the Catskills can be read “as a metaphor of the American dream, how quickly the optimism of the early part of the 20th century became cynicism. It felt like a microcosm of the current moment.”
The 43-year-old author grew up “all over the place,” as he says: born in Los Angeles, then lived in the Netherlands and Saudi Arabia and back to Tennessee where the family was from. As an adult, he lived in New York City, Ithaca and Chapel Hill, N.C., where he now teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina. The author of a previous novel, “The Grand Tour,” he is a staff writer for the online literary journal The Millions, where he has written about, among other topics, semicolons and the em dash.
His interest in the Catskills was sparked by the stories of a Brooklyn-born friend in Ithaca, who had stayed at places like Grossinger’s and the Concord as a child, and then returned in the ’70s and ’80s. One story in particular inspired an episode in the book, when, as the hotel is already declining and the old clientele disappearing, a Polish Policemen’s League with 50 officers spends a weekend and drunkenly trashes the place.
“There are some writers who are completely obsessed with getting everything factually perfect. I want to be not completely wrong. For me, it’s important to let my imagination have some play. That’s the balance I’m trying to strike,” he says.
Price admits to feeling a sense of nostalgia for the Catskills as he got deeper into the story, even though he was never there while the place was still flourishing.
“Even in decay, you can see how beautiful Grossinger’s was. You can feel its soul even though it’s dead,” he says.
Slated for October publication, Andrea Simon’s novel-in-stories, “Floating in the Neversink,” is set in the same locale, full of period details from the 1950s and ’60s, revolving around the narrator’s grandmother’s home in the Catskills and the nearby hotels and bungalow colonies. Simon creates fiction from her firsthand experiences of this landscape, and her own multi-generational family. The story is told from the point of view of a young girl from Flatbush who spends summers along “the up-and-down tree line of the Catskill Mountains, with the cloudless blue sky on top.” Her keen observations are those of a Jewish teen coming of age, dating anniversaries to the dates of getting braces, remembering the outfits of the Catholic-school girls in her Brooklyn neighborhood and relishing outdoor, secret adventures in the Catskill woods as well as “tutti-fruiti” ice cream. This novel too has its dark edges, as Simon explores complexities of friendship and family.
Set in the 1960s, “Monticello: A Borscht Belt Catskills Tale” by Elliot Udell (Farnsworth and Fitzgerald Press) is a fictional account of summertime in the Catskills in the heyday of the resorts — billboards along Route 17 featured the logos of the hotels and the names of the featured entertainers, whether Myron Cohen at Brickman’s, Allen and Rossi at Kutscher’s or Eddie Fisher at Grossinger’s. Udell grew up spending summers at his grandparents’ rooming house in Monticello, down the road from a hotel aptly called the Evergreen Lodge. Basing his Catskills take on his family’s experiences and actual places, he writes warmly of summer escapades, including his experiences with religious life there.
In the Catskills, there’s still hope of a renaissance, whether it’s casinos, or robust chasidic life, newly curated towns or the timeless call of the mountains. On a recent visit to Kaaterskill Falls — the site of Allegra Goodman’s remarkable novel named for the site — and the surrounding area, I had the great pleasure of stumbling upon a beautiful new independent bookstore, Briars and Brambles, in Windham, adjacent to Tannersville, that carries many of the books we write about, and many others I’d love to read.