Review: Katie Murray's “All The Queens Men”

Katie Murray's "All The Queens Men" 
Published by Daylight in 2013 - purchase here
Post by Carl Gunhouse

From the ages of two to nine, I lived in Dunellen, NJ, a one square mile town in Middlesex County with its only claim to fame, having a train station. Growing up there involved watching older kids build dirt track cars, lighting things on fire and fighting other little kids for the amusement of older kids. After fourth grade my father got a better job, and we moved to Summit, NJ, a town known for being very wealthy. The first day of fourth grade, it became apparent that white Nike high-tops and sweatpants were not what the other kids thought were cool. I immediately became aware that I had come from a white-trash, working-class neighborhood. Over time I acclimated to corduroy pants, New Balance sneakers and lacrosse, but looking back I've always been a little curious how I might have turned out if I had spent my formative years in a town that valued high school football over college acceptance.

My one-time working class upbringing is at the heart of my fondness for Katie Murray's excellent All The Queens Men. The book starts off with a handful of pictures of men looking back at the camera, then, bam, this overhead sprawling view of an outer borough, basking in warm sunlight, with pigeons exploding out from the street, a moment that just screams the long ride on the 7 to Shea. Then, as if in a transition from a Scorsese film, we are inside of a shadowy car talking to a guy, which leads to a series of pictures of men of Irish / Italian descent in leather jackets that haven't been fashionable since the seventies. Which leads into a series of even more intimate moments with old working-class men sitting in suburban living rooms. The book wonderfully sets the stage and cast for a world of working class white men in the gray area between city and suburb.

Once she establishes her characters, Murray establishes the emotional tenor and the level of access the viewer will have. A small dark-haired boy in a suit, posed in what one can only guess is a confirmation picture, starts us down a trail of men sometimes shirtless, with small children, scars, black eyes, looking vulnerable while standing at a door holding red roses, saddened with a scotch in front of the x-mas tree, and generally living life. To set a pace and keep us located, Murray inserts little shots of a neighbor's backyard and the brick and vinyl two-stories, which line the outer boroughs. With the emotional availability and intimate settings, we quickly feel at home with these men and their place in the world.

As we get comfortable imagining the cheap wine, manigot, and bread from the local bakery, we catch a glimpse of the young men on the outskirts, along fences, in vacant lots and then dramatically we see a group of tattooed shirtless men surrounding a blindfolded young man and swinging what appear to be shirts containing something heavy. The scene immediately looks like a gang initiation, and all of the sudden, this intimate white masculine community once again becomes a source of drama and suspense.

The book ends with an overturned tree, a broken tree branch and a night scene of an intersection covered in toilet paper. You come away feeling that these places of working white men are less dramatic and romanticized than on TV and in movies, but infinitely more complex. And you feel grateful for that Katie Murray took us inside these places and achieved what Szarkowski once said was the sign of good art: "it tells us something that we don't already know."