Morningside Heights has changed — as neighborhoods tend to do — over the past few decades, according to Brooklyn-based author Joshua Henkin. In his latest novel, named after the Upper West Side neighborhood where he grew up, Henkin put some of those changes down on paper.
“There’s a way in which the neighborhood is a character in the book,” he explained. Henkin is the author of three prior novels and spent eight years writing his latest work.
“Morningside Heights,” which tells the decades-long fictional story of an accomplished Columbia University professor’s relationships with his wife and family, both before his health deteriorates and as he develops early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, was published in June after a year-long delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In mid-July, the West 111th Street Block Association held its first online event to celebrate the launch with a brief reading from Henkin and questions from community members.
“We’re very lucky to live in a city that has so many different reflections and layers of meaning,” Upper West Sider Doug Lavin said in an interview. Lavin, who is an organizer for the West 111th Street Block Association and a member of the group’s planning committee, explained that discussion during the online event touched on the connection between the book’s protagonist reaching the “heights” of his career and the social and geographic setting of Morningside Heights.
Among the landmarks that local readers may recognize or recall are Chock full o’Nuts (now gone from the Upper West Side), the Hungarian Pastry Shop (still in business) and the West End Bar (also no longer).
Central to the book’s plot, though, is a more personal tale inspired by facets of Henkin’s own childhood in the neighborhood. Like the character Spence Robin, Henkin’s father taught at Columbia University and developed Alzheimer’s, though later in life. Henkin’s mother abandoned her comfort zone to take caregiving classes at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, where she wound up finding a new sense of community; though never a student of Henkin’s father, she does share some similarities with Pru Steiner, Robin’s fictional student and eventual wife.
Initially, Henkin began “Morningside Heights” as a short story focused on the JCC; eventually, he’d written 3,000 pages.
“About a year or two in, I realized that really wasn’t what I was writing about,” Henkin said of the initial concept. “That I was writing about this marriage and this family. And so, you know, by draft eight or nine, the JCC was entirely gone” from the narrative.
Just as the neighborhood had changed in real life, so too had the world within Henkin’s latest novel.
“There’s a way in which the neighborhood is a character in the book.” Author Joshua Henkin