From Publishers Weekly
Readers who make it to the end of this unusual book may already have asked themselves the author's closing questions: "Why am I writing this, and why are you reading it?" Those cracking the binding in hopes of encountering a new biography of mobster Arnold "the Brain" Rothstein, rumored to be the fixer behind the 1919 World Series scandal, will do some mental scratching at the lengthy introductory discourses on the etymology of "dice" and the Torah's variant names for God. Tosches is attempting to use the figure of the Tammany Hall–era gangster as an entry point for an idiosyncratic, wide-ranging history of Western civilization. Rothstein himself really doesn't appear until two-thirds of the way into the book (although earlier chapters about religion, fascism, political correctness and other subjects of interest to the author alternate with excerpts on the criminal from an old Brooklyn newspaper and from surrogate's court proceedings). This despite Tosches's representations—unsupported, alas—that the gangster deserves further study and attention "[b]ecause Arnold Rothstein is a shadow figure beyond good and evil." But by giving short shrift to the details of the endemic corruption plaguing New York City during Rothstein's reign, the author fails to make his case that misconduct by police and elected officials was at least as reprehensible. Agent, Russ Galen.(May 3)
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Tosches' alleged biography of Jewish gangster Arnold Rothstein certainly takes an interesting approach. After opening with Rothstein's death in 1928, Tosches embarks on a lengthy linguistic study of the Bible's change from "gods" to "God," then proceeds to debunk the myth that all European Jews came to the New World fleeing pogroms, pausing to explore early U.S.-Russian relationships, before even depicting Rothstein's grandparents' arrival in Manhattan in 1852. Along the way, he includes transcripts of a hearing regarding Rothstein's contested will and a first-person rant that starts by saying the Holocaust is inappropriately named. It's either deep, deep background or . . . what? Is Rothstein a Christ figure? A holy sinner? Was Jazz Age New York paradise? Is contemporary New York hell? Two-thirds of the way through, the book does start to be more "about" Rothstein. Writing in the first person again, Tosches says he's given up on the "tricks" of his trade, but all writing involves trickery; he's just opened a new bag. His book is sometimes boring, sometimes brilliant, often irritating. Readers looking for a gangster tale will be sorely disappointed--readers who want to know what it's like to live inside Tosches' head will hit the jackpot. Keir GraffCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved