The Bookie’s Son
by Andrew Goldstein
Product Description (from Amazon.com):
The year is 1960 and the place is the Bronx. All twelve-year-old Ricky Davis wants to do is play stickball with his friends and flirt with the building super’s daughter. But when his father crosses gangster Nathan Glucksman and goes into hiding, Ricky has to take over his father’s bookie business and figure out a way to pay back his debt—before the gangsters make good on their threats. Meanwhile, Ricky’s mother, Pearl, a fading beauty of failed dreams, plots to raise the money by embezzling funds from one of her boss’s clients: Elizabeth Taylor. Fast-paced, engrossing and full of heart, The Bookie’s Son paints the picture of a family forced to decide just how much they’re willing to sacrifice for each other—and at what cost.
The Bookie’s Son came to me from the publicist, who described it as a “coming of age” novel, which it is, in that protagonist Ricky Davis, whom we first meet when he’s borrowing his grandmother’s false teeth to play-act with (and what kid hasn’t been tempted to do the same?) goes through a lot of life lessons, including his Bar Mitzvah, over the course of the book, but to me, it read like a dark comedy as well, because even though the situations were often grim (Ricky watches his father collect debts on behalf of a crimelord, etc.) they’re treated with an all-too-human sense of humor.
That balance of humor and drama is one of the things that makes this novel sing, but another is the author’s use of language. I grew up in a culturally Catholic, New Jersey Neopolitan family. It’s a culture that speaks with a very specific rhythm, enhanced by the use of Italian terms and local slang. Goldstein’s book is set in the Bronx in the 60’s, in a Jewish family, but that, too, has a very specific linguistic rhythm, which can be difficult to capture on the page. And yet Goldstein has, to the point where the reader – or at least this reader – can hear that slightly nasal Bronx accent, hear the faint Eastern European accent in the Yiddish words, hear the kids using their street language among themselves, and slightly better language at home…and you are there. There among the clattering dishes, ringing telephones, guys (most likely in scary plaid pants) calling to place bets…sure, his descriptions are good, but it’s use of language that really puts you in the scene.
I have to confess, that it’s Ricky’s MOTHER I was most drawn to – maybe because I’m a woman, or maybe because I want to know more about the process that makes a person willing to sacrifice herself (not her life, but her SELF) for others. Sure, she’s drawn a bit like a comic character, and in other hands her job as the assistant to a theatrical lawyer who handles clients like Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe would be written for pure hilarity, but in Goldstein’s hands, she has this lovely pathos to balance the preposterous-ness, and comes across as vibrant and interesting.
While I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen this book from the shelf in a bookstore, I’m really glad I crossed paths with it, because The Bookie’s Son is a great story about people who are as real as any of us, leading gritty, funny, earthy, HUMAN lives. Also? It can’t be said enough: the dialogue is to die for.
Goes well with: blue Jell-o, or a chocolate egg cream, but not together because that would be gross.