If you love New York City, chances are you’ll adore Ellington Boulevard, a novel by the author of the critically acclaimed Crossing California and its sequel, The Washington Story. The Ellington referred to in the title is none other than the Duke himself, along with the street named after him, plus the fact that Langer gave his new book the subtitle, “A Novel in A‑flat” which tells you even before you crack open the cover that there will be plenty of music not only in the story but in the language in which it is so deftly written.
Like many New York stories, both factual and fictional, this one revolves around real estate, with characters that ultimately remind us of our best — and worst — selves. There’s the musician who is about to be evicted from his Upper West Side roost, for example. The landlord, a newly married recently recovered alcoholic who has just discovered he has a Jewish soul. A potential buyer for the apartment, a magazine editor, who falls in love with the musician.
Crossing paths and double-crossing each other, and the rest of the lively cast, makes for a funny and poignant ode to a city in the throes of a real estate boom whose proportions, pitfalls, and power to magnify love have never been seen quite like this before.
In addition to being a novelist, Langer is also a journalist and a playwright, and he has the kind of nimble mind that enables him to work in several genres at once. He’s now working on a new novel and a non-fiction book at the same time. Is this confusing? “Not so much,” he says, adding that the writing process he uses is to follow his instinct, listen to what the people in his book say they want to do next, and then write it up just that way.
“I tend to work cinematographically,” he said. “My philosophy is shoot, shoot, shoot. Then I look it all over and see what needs to end up on the cutting room floor.”
Langer says he works mostly at home, but at the local library, on trains and planes, and in the neighborhood park as well. “I aim for 1000 words a day,” he said. “That can take two hours or twelve.” He is a self-taught writer, never having taken a writing class. “I figure out what I’m going to write next by letting the characters, plot, and narrative form themselves. I don’t outline; I lose interest if I know where the story is going. I just follow the flow and see where it takes me.”
Often, that means leaving his New York City apartment on, yes, Ellington Blvd., in what Langer says is called the “upper-upper West Side” to walk his dog and talk to people in the neighborhood. When he meets people, he listens to what they have to say and then imagines what they’ll do next. Some of them, rolled up into a composite, may wind up in the book he’s working on.
“My goal, growing up, was to become the first Jewish mayor of Chicago, my hometown,” he said. “But I’m very happy I became a writer.”
Linda F. Burghardt is a New York-based journalist and author who has contributed commentary, breaking news, and features to major newspapers across the U.S., in addition to having three non-fiction books published. She writes frequently on Jewish topics and is now serving as Scholar-in-Residence at the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County.