December 18, 2018

Book review: ‘How Sweet It Is!’ is a gangster’s paradise

The first voice you hear in the latest novel by Thane Rosenbaum, “How Sweet It Is!” (Mandel Vilar Press), belongs to the Great One himself, Jackie Gleason. 

“Miami Beach is magical, but it is the magic of the dark arts,” Gleason is made to say. “Black magic masquerading as enchantment.” A Brooklyn boy who ended up as the self-styled “King of Miami Beach,” a fictional version of Gleason sets the scene of South Florida in 1972 — the glamorous hotels and nightclubs and eateries, the beaches and the blue sky, but also the “fleabags, flophouses, and eyesores,” the gambling dens and the strip joints: “For all the talk of radiant light, darkness shares equal billing in this variety show of a tropical paradise.”

So begins a smart, funny, rollicking and razor-sharp novel with the unlikeliest cast of characters, starting with the unforgettable Sophie Posner, who survives the Holocaust only to end up in service to Meyer Lansky’s Jewish Mafia in its post-Castro decline: “Bickering, elderly Jewish gangsters, stabbing their pudgy fingers in the air and insulting one another, had taken a well-oiled machine and made it resemble a failed industry from the Rust Belt.” 

In a post-Holocaust version of the cute meet, Lansky first encounters Sophie, a deli cashier on her night off, when he tries to frighten her away from one of his poker tables before she breaks the bank. “Mister Gangster, I’m already living on borrowed time,” she retorts. “I’m playing with the house’s money. Most of the people at Majdanek were gassed and cremated — the Royal Flush of death.” Lansky, who has already noticed the numbers tattooed on her arm, reacts “as if he had just seen the face of God.”

It’s a peak effort by Rosenbaum, a Renaissance man of arts and letters who is, at once, a novelist, a legal scholar and commentator, and a public intellectual whose work appears in The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, among other publications. As he shows us here, he has the chops for sly social observation, cultural and political satire, and ironic Jewish humor all at once.  

“Meyer had little of that charisma and confidence that makes the shtarkers all that shtark,” he observes. “Bugsy had been a Mafia rock star; Sophie carried herself not like a cashier but as a warrior princess.” Indeed, the “Lady Consigliere,” as Lansky dubs her, is more bloodthirsty than the boss, as when she counsels him to murder a rival mobster. 

“ ‘Slit his throat,’ she suggested.”

“ ‘Absolutely not.’ ”

“ ‘Shoot him in the head.’ ”

“ ‘Stop it, already.’ ”

“ ‘Where’s your balls, Lansky? What’s the matter with you? Is this any way for a Jewish don to act? Have some dignity and stand up straight!’ ”

Rosenbaum also introduces us to Sophie’s enigmatic husband, Jacob (“He was the sort of person who believed that a human being can never get enough camouflage in his life”), and their son, Adam, a reluctant little-leaguer in the throes of puberty who discovers the sexual revolution in full display when he and a friend prowl through Flamingo Park by night: “Sex was never mentioned at home, nor, he doubted, was it ever performed there,” the author explains. “Neither [Brad] nor Adam had received much in the way of sex education at school. Now it appeared that they had skipped a few grades.”

Gleason and Lansky, as it happens, are not only real people who appear in Rosenbaum’s book. Indeed, it is the point of contact between fact and fiction that strikes sparks in his narrative prose. The most pointed example is the encounter between Jacob Posner, a former partisan and a camp survivor, and Isaac Bashevis Singer, who is harshly depicted as someone who “had already milked the Jews on West End Avenue of Manhattan” and “now would deplete the Jews of Collins Avenue in Miami Beach.” When Jacob makes a heartbreaking revelation to Singer over a baked apple at a restaurant table, the great man hastily writes it down.

“Here, of course, I. B. failed to acknowledge how he was cashing in on another’s suffering, mining his mind, the petty thefts of the fiction writer,” the author tells us in an aside that is no less heartbreaking or revelatory than Jacob’s story. “I. B. was writing furiously like a court stenographer charged with capturing every syllable.” 

This, of course, is the crime of every novelist and short-story writer, including Rosenbaum himself.  But he also demonstrates in the pages of “How Sweet It Is!” — a book that treats the Posner family with the deepest compassion — that the crime, if that’s what it is, brings its own redemption.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.