I delved into Floating City with the expectation of gaining a quantifiable, data-driven insight into New York’s underworld… and knowing, best-selling author, Sudhir Venkatesh’s involvement in the Freakonomics series, I may be forgiven for this. To some extent, Venkatesh himself seems to expect it too. But Venkatesh is not an economist. He’s a sociologist with issues. Personal issues, career issues… all of which accompany him on this journey through a rarely glimpsed, but nevertheless large, portion of New York’s population.
Venkatesh inserts himself into the lives of sex workers, drug dealers, madams and johns in an attempt to find some correlation between class / race boundaries and the illegal and illicit economy that spans across them. Can a Latina street hooker become a high-earning escort? How does a downtown drug dealer get into the upperclass cocaine market? Venkatesh explores both of these questions and more, but not with numbers and charts.
Instead, Venkatesh spends years with individuals, conducting interviews and following their escapades. He blurs the line between sociologist and journalist by becoming personally involved and emotionally attached, often more than he would like to admit. As a result, as a reader, you can’t help but do the same.
In the end ‘Floating City’ feels more like a collection of short true-stories tied together by a loose theory, than an academic read… and there’s nothing wrong with that if you’re prepared to leave your preconceptions at page 1. After all, regardless of this book’s definition, the lives of Venkatesh’s study subjects make for a shocking, intriguing and delectably dark read.
‘Floating City’ is due for release in the UK on the 12th September 2013.
Reviewed by Francesca Bassenger. Image courtesy of Penguin, with special thanks to Mari Yamazaki.