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fast out of the gate, but pulls up lame
on March 19, 2008
Funny Boys starts out with enormous promise--in the late 1930's a young tumler goes to work at a Catskill resort popular with gangsters--in particular with the Jewish mobsters of what would be called Murder, Inc, and their Mafia connections through Albert Anastasia. There's a wonderful Runyonesque flavor to it. You may also be reminded of the darker novel Billy Bathgate, set at the same time and also switching between New York and Catskill resorts. But, sad to say, it starts to falter, and falter increasingly. I simply could not buy the plot and the actions of the people.
I think that Adler would have done much better to keep things light, to stick to a Runyonesque flavor. Runyon's gangsters, to my recollection, were not vicious thugs--at least the stories were not replete with violence. They were gangsters, to be sure, not people you'd want to insult. In Funny Boys, the gangsters are Pittsburgh Phil Strauss, Kid Twist Reles, Albert Anastasia, and others: Murder, Inc's victims may have been as high as 1000. So Adler keeps trying to mix humor with an extraordinarily vicious bunch of mobsters. Breslin's The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight managed such a mix successfully, Funny Boys does not.
Mickey Fine, the tumler, keeps doing things that seem completely contrary to human nature. Early in the book he bumps into Reles and Strauss: on learning their names, he thinks maybe they're a comedy team. Yet about 10 years before, Reles and Strauss had, before Fine's eyes, given his father a brutal schlamming [a beating with a pipe wrapped in newspaper] for not paying the vig on a loan, and to encourage the man to pay, had repeatedly forced Mickey's head into a toilet: Mickey had to pay off the vig and the loan with his own savings. You'd forget such an occurrence? Later, in the Catskill resort, Mickey is told by Strauss to keep Strauss' girlfriend Mutzie happy. They start spending a lot of time together and people start talking and speculating. This I just cannot accept. Mickey knows that Strauss enjoys killing people, and he has been told of previous tumlers who came to grief who had been suspected of having affairs with the wrong women. I also cannot buy Strauss encouraging the two to get together. An affair with the girlfriend of a Strauss would be very bad indeed--fatal for Mickey and Mutzie. But what would be much worse--there are fatalities and there are really bad fatalities--would be for people to think that something is going on, whether it is or not, and Strauss not doing anything about it. Respect by the other mobsters, for Strauss, is crucial--if your pals think something is going on, and you do not take some serious action, you get disrespected--which could be fatal for Strauss himself. Caesar's wife must be above suspicion. You might also imagine yourself in the service of, say, Henry VIII. Having an affair with, or even paying too much attention to one of Henry's wives would likely result in your growing shorter by a head. Would you have an affair with John Gotti's wife? There are other plot elements, such as flushing a $100 bill down the toilet, that do not ring true. Finally, the owner of the resort would have fired Mickey at the very first sign of anything, or else he might have a fatal accident himself.
You'll also may have some trouble wading through the heavy Brooklynese accents. The book could have been quite different. Suppose we take out the love interest between Mickey and Mutzie: a portrayal of life at a Catskill resort frequented by mobsters has plenty of great scope. If we have to have a love story in the book, make it between the tumler and the daughter (or sister) of a mobster: the tumler would have to walk a very fine line (as perhaps in Romeo and Juliet). The plot line the book takes just does not seem rational or reasonable: as you read the book, sigh and think of what could have been done here.