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Book Review: The Bookie’s Son by Andrew Goldstein

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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.

About The Dirty Lowdown

I was born in Pomona, California at a very young age. I had a pretty normal childhood…or I was a pretty normal child hood if mom is telling the story. I was a paperboy and washed cars. I was a soda fountain jock-jerk and a manic mechanic but my first real job was as a labor organizer in a maternity ward. Then, because of the misjudgment of a judge I spent nearly 10 years in the service of our country mostly on KP duty. Our country sure turns out a lot of dirty dishes. I am a past master at pots and pans. They eventually recognized my real talent and let me wander around some very unfriendly places carrying a big radio that didn’t work. Along the way I took up the bass guitar, jotting down stories, electronic engineering and earned a degree in advanced criminal activities. I spent most of my adult life, if you can call it that, working in the I.T. industry, which I was particularly suited for since we worked in rooms with no windows. On and off I taught in colleges, universities and reform schools as a student teacher… I like smog, traffic, kinky people, car trouble, noisy neighbors, and crowded seedy bars where I have been known to quote Raymond Chandler as pickup lines. I have always been a voracious reader, everything from the classics, to popular fiction, history to science but I have a special place in my heart for crime fiction, especially hard-boiled detective fiction and noir. I write a book and music review blog for all genres at The Dirty Lowdown. And another dedicated to Crime Fiction and all things Noir called Crimeways. It’s named after the magazine that appeared in the Kenneth Fearing classic, The Big Clock. There I write scholarly reviews of the classic hard boiled, noir and crime fiction books from the 20's through today. Mostly I drool over the salacious pictures on the covers. I also write for Tecnorati/BlogCritics where i am part of a sinister cabal of superior writers.