Thomas Wolfe’s “Only The Dead Know Brooklyn”

“Only The Dead Know Brooklyn” is a short story by Thomas Wolfe written entirely in “Brooklynese” accent. At first, I had difficulty understanding what I was reading due to the fact that I was not quiet familiar of the dialect that was being used. But, as the story progresses, I’ve come to appreciate this because it shows more insight unto the characters backgrounds and environment — plus I thought it adds “realness” and “life” to it.

Including the narrator telling the story, we get to meet three other unnamed characters described as the “big guy”, “little guy” and “wise guy”.

“Big guy” was asking directions to “Bensonhoist” (Bensonhurst without the dialect), while the “little guy” didn’t know much about Brooklyn, the narrator helped out the “big guy” instead, but, then came in the “wise guy” that gave a different route that causes a little friction between him and the narrator. Before any trouble starts, the narrator and “big guy” gets into the train and discussed more about the city. The narrator learned that the reason why the “big guy” is looking for Bensonhurst is because he “just goin’ out to see duh place” and he “like duh sound of duh name – Bensonhoist”. The “big guy” proceeds to show the narrator a map that displays the places he visited so far or where he wants to go next; like Flatbush, Bay Ridge, and Red Hook. Although the narrator finds this odd, the two men continued talking till they got to the topic of swimming and drowning. Realizing the strange behavior of the “big guy” about drowning, concluding that he’s insane, the narrator then decided to get off the train before his stop.

Personally, I thought the story was quiet comical. When the narrator and “wise guy” gave out two different directions, it’s funny because this truly pictures the subway system of NYC, for those who are familiar, New York subway is laid out in superfluous manner that you can go to a certain place with more than one different route. So if you think about it, “Wise Guy” and narrator can both be right either way. Another thing, the characters have trouble communicating and making a connection because of their different perspectives — like the narrator & “wise guy” unto the Bensonhurst direction and “big guy” communicating in a metaphorical way while the narrator is more of a practical and literal guy. The “big guy” is all about discovering more through his explorations of the city, but the narrator dismisses this and keeps a narrow mind, instead, he thinks it’s dangerous, that “it’s a good place to stay away from”, even though he’s probably never been there. I also think the these two men reflects how there are two types on how people face life in general, one who is on pursuit of knowledge and curious as to what is out there, while the other one who is content at what is already right in front of him and in the comfort of knowing already instead of going further.

3 thoughts on “Thomas Wolfe’s “Only The Dead Know Brooklyn”

  1. Duane

    Yes! The way that this story is written starts off as difficult to read. Even at first I recognized that for me to fully understand I would have to read it with a ‘New Yorker’ accent but instead, since I was kind of tired and need to stay awake, I read it in a daffy duck kind of voice which I found fun and very helpful. Also, the way how individuals are named ‘Big guy’, ‘wise guy’, and ‘little guy’ are also understandable when spoken in a ‘New Yorker’ accent because ‘wise guy’ is a classic and to describe someone that I do not know but have seen I would first go off by describing their height by saying big, tall, short, so I can relate to the kind of dialogue that is being used in the story. But, I do agree that there is a conflict between characters when it comes to communicating because of the different perspectives which I think is a connection to the title in a way because of the different perspectives and pride to stand their ground or belief, it’s hard to see eye to eye which is occasionally the case in Brooklyn. There are a lot of arrogant people in the Brooklyn who shut out other perspectives and can not see beyond their own thoughts. Then point fingers and judge when they don’t understand or don’t come to an agreement which is what happened at the end of the story where the narrator named the guy with the map crazy.

  2. Yasmin

    In the beginning the first thing we notice is the different slang/ accent the narrator is speaking. It was strange for me. For a second it felt like i had different language settings, and that I had to readjust them by clicking a button in my head to understand the written work.

    The narrator is definitely unreliable because he comes off as arrogant, stubborn, and close-minded. However it’s understandable. It’s overwhelming to take in consideration how huge and diverse Brooklyn is. It’s easiest to just focus on where you’re going and what you need to do rather than to focus on the borough as a whole. Therefore, when the big guy defies those rules, its his instinct to fear or be intimidated by someone who was extremely different. He wasn’t able to understand his intentions so he was quick to reject his curiosity. Also, to the narrator getting to know Brooklyn would take too much time that wasn’t worth it. He decided before trying that it was a waste of time because the goal seemed unobtainable.

  3. Jody R. Rosen

    The dialect makes reading the story difficult. I like Duane’s suggestion to read it out loud, and think any character that helps will work!

    The take-away for me with this story is that the narration is in dialect. Also, the narrator makes every character talk this way, even though he’s probably the only one who does. It helps us think about how writers depict ways of speaking, and how we assume the narrator has so-called proper speech because usually narration is in standard written or spoken English.


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