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 12-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, preparing to be Bar Mitzvahed, takes bets for his part-time bookie father Harry Davis, while 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 one step closer to life as a man.
But all is not rosy in Ricky’s world. Though intent on playing stick-ball and stoop ball as often as possible, he also needs to keep dodging the sadistic neighborhood bully, Tony, the worlds oldest seventh grader. And 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 father’s 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 is fun to visit her apartment because her closets are full of wonderful merchandise. Then there is Aunt Flo, who likes to be operated on – and Aunt Ethel, who isn’t clinically insane but her high opinion of herself makes her insufferable. And of course, we can’t forget 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.
But an about-to-be Bar Mitzvahed 12-year old has responsibilities. He must take bets on the phone for his bookie father Harry, 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. Rounding out the family 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 – who have placed a “do not disturb” sign on their lives – fight like cats and dogs and are verbally abusive, bordering on cruel.
Right now they are fighting over Harry owing Jewish gangster Nathan Glucksman a seemingly insurmountable debt. Not only that, 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 pal were all childhood friends together.