Dear Billyburg

The Brooklyn Paper
Share on TwitterTweet
Share on Facebook

Don’t miss our updates:

When author Jami Attenberg decided to write a “love letter” to Williamsburg, she didn’t prattle on about its hipster denizens.

She wrote about a little known segment of its population: Its “kept men.”

A five-year resident of a converted pasta factory on Williamsburg’s south side, Attenberg, 36, was well versed in the area’s buzzy art scene and found herself drawn to kept men, local house husbands who populate coffee shops and Laundromats during the daytime hours.

“When you walk around Williamsburg, you see them sitting in cafes and you wonder what they do with their time,” she told GO Brooklyn. “[Writing the book] was just a really natural process of thinking about the art world and my neighborhood and how both of those things are always evolving.”

We caught up with Attenberg in Los Angeles, five days into her book tour for “The Kept Man,” her first novel.” (She published a collection of short stories, “Instant Love,” in 2007.)

“I wanted to write a book about Williamsbu­rg,” she said of its genesis. “It’s a really fascinating place.”

“The Kept Man” is the story of Jarvis Miller, wife of an almost famous painter, Martin, who, after an accident, has fallen into a coma and left her to handle life — and his still ascendant career — solo.

At the book’s opening, Jarvis is only slightly more exciting than the comatose Martin. Aside from lunches with his shark art dealer, Alice, and occasional visits from his lothario best friend Davis (whose dalliances with the employees of Greenpoint’s Peter Pan Donuts have made it tough for this reporter to make his regular stop at the sugar shack without grimacing), Jarvis is a shut-in.

That is, until she meets the kept men, three guys allowed a life of luxury — and laundry, for they meet weekly at a Laundromat — thanks to the high-paying jobs their wives hold.

Over weekly afternoons of washing and drinking — afternoon pints at Rosemary’s Greenpoint Tavern is one of the neighborhood details that Attenberg nailed — Jarvis is drawn from her shell, and has the chance to see how she and Martin are not so different from other married couples. Peeking into the lives of her new pals is less fruitful; the men each serve their purpose in advancing the plot, but don’t have the same depth as our heroine.

Capturing the nuances of North Brooklyn is something Attenberg, herself unmarried, does with skill.

These aren’t the well tread literary lanes of Boerum Hill, or a hipster-heavy pastiche of Williamsburg; she maintains a balanced view of the neighborhood and makes her characters believable as residents.

“In terms of the physical terrain, I was out there every day, taking pictures, riding my bike and thinking about the neighborho­od,” said Attenberg. “When I was writing the book, I was not as crazy with Williamsburg as I was at the end of it. I had worked out my issues with it, and it turned into a crazy love letter.”

And while the area doesn’t have the bookish cache of some Brooklyn neighborhoods, Attenberg, who writes at Supercore, a Japanese cafe on Bedford Avenue, and Atlas coffee shop on Havemeyer Street, thinks that it’s undervalued.

“Everyone I see on a daily basis is doing something creative and there’s a lot of energy here,” Attenberg said. “There is that Park Slope, Carroll Gardens writer … people think that’s where the literary scene is. And Williamsburg gets seen more as a painter and musician’s scene, but I like that we’re a bit of a secret weapon.

“We’re undercover and mining all of this great material. There are really good people out there doing it, who deeply care and are invested in the neighborhood and aren’t going anywhere. We’re building groundwork here.”

Attenberg’s ’burg

When Jami Attenberg wrote her novel, “The Kept Man,” she wasn’t just imagining the formerly industrial Williamsburg landscape dotted with chic boutiques, fancy restaurants and important art galleries, she actually lives in it. As readers discover in her book, a kept man makes a great pal because he’s rich and free all day. GO Brooklyn asked Attenberg to dish about her top neighborhood spots; places where visitors should stop if they’re looking to find a kept man of their own.


269 Grand St. at Roebling Street in Williamsburg, (718) 384-7770,

This upscale Japanese tapas lounge (pictured at right) attracts world-weary Williamsburgers thanks to cocktails featuring house-made, fruit-infused liquor and a large menu of sushi and other Japanese favorites. “[Bozu is] my favorite place to have a dinner party for out-of-town guests,” said Attenberg, “and the ‘party bomb’ sushi (pictured at right) is so pretty and delicious.”

Cinders Gallery

103 Havemeyer St. at Hope Street in Williamsburg, (718) 388-2311,

“They’ve got an adorable front gallery space,” said Attenberg, “and everything is extremely affordable.” Open since 2004, Cinders is one of the neighborhood’s most accessible and prolific galleries. In addition to hosting shows, the space also sells zines, clothing and crafts made by local artists.

Pierogi Gallery

177 N. Ninth St. at Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, (718) 599-2144,

Open since 1994, Attenberg called Pierogi — named for the Polish dumplings that are hawked throughout the neighborhood and served at the gallery’s openings — “a true Williamsburg classic.” Many a neighborhood artist has gotten his start here, and the openings are the stuff of local legend.

Secret Project Robot

210 Kent Ave. at North Third Street in Williamsburg, (917) 860-8282,

This not-quite-secret spot is a catch-all for artsy Williamsburgers who flock here for live music, events and exhibitions.

“They’re young and rambunctious and all about DIY [do-it-yourself],” said Attenberg. Although we’ve heard it called an “Animal House for hipsters,” we had to agree with Attenberg when she said, “their energy is amazing.”

Spuyten Duyvil

359 Metropolitan Ave. at Havemeyer Street in Williamsburg, (718) 963-4140,

Known throughout the borough for its huge selection of international beers, Spuyten Duyvil — which, in butchered Dutch, means “in spite of the devil” — is one of the more mellow bars in the area. “The back patio is the best place to drink strong beer in the summertime,” noted Attenberg. And with some of the rare brews running $15 and up per bottle, kept men flock here to avoid slumming it at other local pubs.

“The Kept Man” By Jami Attenberg ($24.95, Riverhead) is available at BookCourt (163 Court St. at Pacific Street in Cobble Hill). For information, visit

Updated 4:01 pm, November 10, 2010
Today’s news:
Share on TwitterTweet
Share on Facebook

Don’t miss our updates:

Reasonable discourse

Comments closed.

First name
Last name
Your neighborhood
Email address
Daytime phone

Your letter must be signed and include all of the information requested above. (Only your name and neighborhood are published with the letter.) Letters should be as brief as possible; while they may discuss any topic of interest to our readers, priority will be given to letters that relate to stories covered by The Brooklyn Paper.

Letters will be edited at the sole discretion of the editor, may be published in whole or part in any media, and upon publication become the property of The Brooklyn Paper. The earlier in the week you send your letter, the better.

Keep it local!

Stay in touch with your community. Subscribe to our free newsletter: