Second-novelist Berlin (Headlock, 2000) offers another skillful yet surface-driven tale of two closely bonded males, this time a single father and his 16-year-old son.
Living in Manhattan, on Bedford Street in the West Village, Jared Chiziver makes his living as—well, as a pickpocket, and one par excellence. He’s not only good enough never to have been caught, but good enough to provide himself and his son Ben—a brainy kid who tested into a spot at Stuyvesant High—with a regular, decent, and more or less normal life. Father and son talk seriously, eat three squares, both love movies, even go running together—the last being part of a major extracurricular passion for Ben and a way of staying fit and young for his good-looking if enigmatic father. This premise of an alternative and unusual life in the big city is filled with possibility and is well handled indeed by Berlin—until the hunger for plot rears its head. Which happens first hardly matters—Ben’s turning out to be gay or his father’s stumbling upon a woman who, unlike the usual long string of once-only lovers, doesn’t bore him after a one-night stand. Anna Partager is different—more authentic, a good cook, and a photographer, working just now on a book to be made up of photos of dead men. A mixed blessing, this, since, though it does provide a fascinating scene of Anna’s photographing a dead man on the subway, it also telegraphs heavy-handedly what’s to come. Ben’s newfound sexuality will get him attacked in a horrific way, and the awful vengeance taken by his understanding and impassioned father—the novel could be called Perils of the Penis—will necessitate flight from the Big Apple, hiding out in Miami, and then, due to cash flow problems, the undertaking of a major heist that will end up with—need it be said, a last photo of a dead man, taken by Anna.
A start filled with real possibility degenerates into the formulaic.