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.
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 a friend with her boss’ clients, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilynn Monroe, Orson Wells, Otto Preminger, and Vivian Leigh, to name a few. Pearl has such funny stories to tell about these famous people who trust her to manage their bank accounts. Plus, 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 shoplifter, a skill she proudly teaches Ricky? And what can you say about a mother whose two best childhood friends became gangsters, and who 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: raising money to bet on a horse race he knows is fixed, selling lemonade and cup cakes at the subway entrance, selling 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 family’s love.
The Bookie’s Son is told in naïve prose, befitting a 12-year old narrator, but he becomes subtly more mature as our narrator lives through the summer. It’s a sly, quiet trick and bespeaks the author’s ability. The dialog is funny, but honest, and seems to flow from a 12-year old’s mind with an ease of a summer day. The hurdles and goals will, or should, bring a smile of remembrance to the reader’s 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 sense of reality, reminding us that we can never go home again. It’ll also prove to us, in retrospect, that home wasn’t necessarily all that we remember and that we outgrow 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. Golstein 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, Goldstein 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 40 years.
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