Saturday, November 23, 2019

93. The Amboy Dukes by Irving Shulman

Picked this up at the Concordia book fair.  The name rang a bell, but nothing specific came to mind beyond a vague memory that this book was a classic or had caused a controversy.  I later learned there was a folk rock band from the 80s who took that same name.

I have to say that the hype on the front and back covers did not exaggerate.  There are always these two conflicting notions, that the past was softer and more innocent versus human nature always being human nature and the bad side of it being as depraved as possible from the beginning of time.  Well this book makes a strong argument for the latter.  Written in 1947, it takes place in Brownsville, when it was primarily a Jewish working class neighbourhood (or slum or ghetto as it practically was).  The war effort has finally blessed the poverty-stricken neighbourhood with some income as parents now work late and weekend shifts in munitions factories.  This leaves the already hardened kids on their own and so they hang out on street corners, pool halls and their club houses.

They are really bad.  They fight with knives and carry around homemade guns.  They have prostitution nights in their club houses where pretty rough gang girls come and bed them one after another on the floor of the kitchen.  They are into all kinds of little scams and their dream is to become a real made gangster.  The protagonist is Frank Goldfarb, with whom at first you are sympathetic as he seems to be a bit smarter than the others and have somewhat of a conscience, being nice to his little sister.  As the book goes on, though, he makes dumber and dumber choices and by the end you know he is doomed.  And he's kind of an asshole.  The main plot motivator is that he and his buddy, after getting kicked out of class, heads back after getting drunk to please clemency with the teacher.  This turns into a fight where the teacher accidentally gets shot (though they were beating him up).  The fear and mistrust that this creates between the two friends and between Frank and the rest of his gang (the eponymous Amboy Dukes, named after the street they hang on) is what drives his actions for the rest of the book.

The portrayal of their world, both physically (the drab tenements, the littered streets, the heat, the local restaurants and stores) and socially (the other gang members, their parents, the cops, the various proprietors, the girls they meet) is detailed and absorbing.  It really captures a feel for the time and place and I enjoyed it immensely.  The plot and the moral framing started to make me skeptical as I went on.  It all feels very factual and realistic and yet there is a low-level dread mixed with titillation (and sometimes just straight out crass) that felt every so slightly manipulative and even preachy.  There is a lot of emphasis on the environment being responsible for the boys' behaviour, but it also had an outsider feel and was meant so that the reader could be shocked and tsk tsk rather than really portraying the lives of these people as they were.  I think there is a nuance where you could show the crime and poverty and also show some of the warmth and character that existed there.  I felt that The Amboy Dukes falls over on to the sensationalist side.  I know Shulman grew up in Brooklyn, but I can't find out if he actually lived this life himself or was just an observer.  He ended up being a successful screenwriter and also wrote several more novels following up on the lives of the other Amboy Duke gang members as they go on to become real gangsters and then on to Hollywood.  I would check those out.

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