The Bookie's Son isn’t a crime novel, although there is plenty of crime in the story. It’s also not a ‘noir’ novel, although there are plenty of flawed characters with a wealth of irredeemable qualities. What it is is a coming of age novel. A coming of age in a neighborhood that no longer exists in a time that no longer exists. A Jewish neighborhood tucked away in the The Bronx in 1960. It’s also a novel that underlines the importance and love of family.
The book is the story of twelve year old Ricky Davis and ‘the best family in The Bronx’ even though they may be the most dysfunctional family in all of New York. It’s a lighthearted account of a heartbreaking story. Ricky Davis is preparing to be Bar Mitzvah, taking bets for his part-time bookie father, Harry Davis, learning about lust love and sex from the 14 year old neighbor girl, Mara who, along with her father, is a refugee from Hungary. Mara dances Gypsy dances revealing with each dropped veil, another mystery of life and bringing Ricky tone step closer to life as a man..
But all is not rosy in Ricky’s world. He is having a devil of a time memorizing his haftorah, the short selections from The Prophets he must recite in Hebrew at his Bar Mitzvah . Then, he has to contend with his fathers family. Before Ricky was born, his aunt Hannah climbed up on the tallest building in the Bronx – thirteen stories – and jumped off. Ricky’s mother, Pearl, contends that Hannah was the sanest of all his aunts. His aunt Ruthie is a kleptomaniac, but it was fun to visit her apartment because her closets were full of wonderful merchandise. Then there is aunt Flo who liked to be operated on and Aunt Ethel, who isn’t clinically insane, but her high opinion of herself makes her insufferable. And aunt Roz, the nuttiest of the bunch. Her son is a teenage child molester and his aunt Sylvia, who has a tremendous need to be the center of attention, and if she’s not she has a tendency to throw up and pass out. He also is intent on dodging the sadistic neighborhood bully, Tony, the worlds oldest 7th grader and playing stick-ball and stoop ball as often as possible.
But an about to be Bar Mitzvah 12 year old has responsibilities. He must take bets on the phone for his bookie father, a small time hustler and full time dreamer whose day job is as a ladies dress cutter in the garment district. What’s more of a challenge is keeping his 80 year old grandmother from answering the phone and taking bets by writing illegible messages on napkins. Then, there is his mother, Pearl, a retired singer on the Borscht Belt and secretary to Arthur Posner, the top theatrical agent in New York who is cheap with his employees but generous in other ways. Pearl and Ricky’s father Harry, fight like cats and dogs and are verbally abusive bordering on cruel. Ricky’s parents have placed a “do not disturb” sign on their lives. Right now they are fighting over Harry owing Jewish gangster Nathan Glucksman a seemingly insurmountable debt and every horse Harry bets on, every scheme he comes up with – tax free cigarettes (how was I supposed to know the truck would get pulled over) Fireproof pajamas, a sure win horse, a boxing match – all seem to fall through. Nathan Glucksman isn’t the kind of guy you want to owe money to, not with the vig being more than you can make in a week. Nathan once sawed off the arm of his childhood friend for selling heroin, so it’s not going to save the Davis’ family for long just because Nathan, Pearl and the now one armed friend were all childhood friends together.
Ricky’s father is a distant father who seems mostly to ignore Ricky, if he’s not yelling at him and shaking his head when he screws up. Still, Ricky idolizes Harry with his 6’2” dark good looks, his air of confidence and his broad shoulders. But Ricky, like all good Jewish boys, simply adores his mother. The prettiest woman in the world, and she is friends with her bosses clients, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilynn Monroe, Orson Wells, Otto Preminger, Vivian Leigh to name a few. Pearl has such funny stories to tell about these famous people that trust her to manage their bank accounts, and she is Ricky’s best friend, outside of Mara the 14 year old exotic dancer. Still, as much as he loves his mother, how admirable can she be when one of her family’s traditions is being an expert shop lifter, a skill she proudly teaches Ricky. And what can you say about a mother that her two best childhood friends became gangsters, that she married a bookie and a small time crook?
So Ricky has a lot on his plate during his last summer as a boy, and he has set himself the goal of saving his family from the threat of Nathan Glucksman. First his schemes are small; raise money to bet on a horse race he knows is fixed, sell lemonade and cup cakes at the subway entrance, sell tickets to one of Mara’s dances. Every scheme becomes bigger and more desperate, until the final scheme fails in the worst of ways. Still, Ricky is determined to rise above being a “lousy cutter’s” son and become a man. Along the way he will learn the meaning of belonging to the ‘best family in The Bronx’ and he’ll learn the meaning of a families love.
The story is told in naïve prose, befitting a 12 year old narrator, but they become subtly more mature as our narrator lives through the summer. It’s a sly quiet trick and bespeaks the authors ability. The dialog is funny, but honest and seems to flow from a 12 year olds mind with an ease of a summer day. The hurdles and goals will, or should bring a smile of remembrance to the readers face. Even if the reader isn’t from The Bronx, or New York, it’ll pull memories of many neighborhoods from your mind, with fondness and with a light of reality that we can never go home again. It’ll also prove to us, in retrospect, home wasn’t necessarily all that we remember and that we out grow those childish things we left behind. But with love, they are never going to outgrow our minds.
This is Andrew Goldstein’s debut work of fiction, and it bodes well for his future. For his biography, well, read the review as written above, and change the names back. Seriously. Goldstein always wanted to be a writer and in his early twenties he was selected as a Bread Loaf Fellow and had his nonfiction book, Becoming:An American Odyssey published by Saturday Review Press. However, in order to make a living while writing he worked at many diverse jobs:tree planter and assistant librarian in Oregon, organic orange and olive farmer in California, school bus driver, Zamboni driver, editor, stock broker, power transformer tube winder and tennis pro in the Berkshires. He’s been writing The Bookie's Son on and off for forty years.
Article first published as Book Review: The Bookie's Son by Andrew Goldstein on Blogcritics.
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