From Publishers Weekly
Gifford's sentimental new novel tracks scrappy, precocious Roy as he finds his way in hardscrabble 1950s Chicago's Polish ward. Roy's life is populated by a crew of wayward boys--the Viper, Magic Frank, and Crazy Lester--who all must confront violence, mental illness, and death in their cold and windy enclave. The world is not entirely gloomy; Roy's development as a writer and love for his mother are rays of light in even the novel's bleakest moments. Though Roy's adventures have the classic footloose appeal of coming-of-age adventures, it's the rogue's gallery of supporting characters that are most memorable, from the Albanian lothario Cubar Shog and mobbed up Sharkface Bensky to the numerous other cutthroats in Roy's orbit. Gifford, best known for his Sailor and Lula novels (Wild at Heart; etc.), has a soft, transporting touch that makes a strong case for this being a one-sitting endeavor.
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Gifford’s work falls into two camps: the edgy, wildly eccentric stories, full of weirdness and perversity but portraying characters who exude a bedrock humanity (Arise and Walk, 1994, or Baby-Cat Face, 1995), and the more realistic, coming-of age tales that find young innocents thrust with open eyes into a world of pain (Wild at Heart, 1989, and the “semi-documentary fictional memoir” A Good Man to Know, 1992). His latest collection of stories falls squarely into the second category. Like A Good Man to Know, it takes place in Chicago in the 1950s and draws heavily on Gifford’s youth. Most of the stories feature a young teenager, Roy, observing the troubled lives of the people he sees in his meanderings around the city. Whether it’s a washed-up fighter with whom Roy plays chess, or a tired stripper who counsels him not to end up “like these bums come into this dive don’t do nuthin’ but tell each other sad stories of the death of kings,” Roy grows up through his encounters with the melancholic detritus of life. Like Gifford, he always finds warm hearts beating beneath the sadness. --Bill Ott