An act of perjury leads to years of struggle and heartache in this debut novel.
In the late 1960s, Lester Gold is a normal 15-year-old boy from Trenton, New Jersey’s “Jewtown” neighborhood. He studies hard, argues with his mother, and is mad about the Yankees and the Mets. But “everything changed” on the night following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Race riots fill the city with fire, fear, and shattered shop windows. “A regular Kristallnacht it was,” says Lester’s father, Julius, shortly before he’s murdered, shot in the back by an unknown assailant. Lester sees nothing of the crime—or does he? Time passes, and Lester finds after-school work as a numbers runner at Louie’s Barber Shop, where Santo, a young thug, encourages him to finger an aspiring black militant, Salim, for Julius’ death. Lester doesn’t realize until too late that the man he sent to a death sentence is the brother of Naima, “a Negro with a big reddish Afro and a sprinkling of freckles on her nose,” with whom Lester is infatuated. As the 1960s become the ’70s, the central drama of Lester’s life becomes redeeming himself in the eyes of Naima, righting the wrong he committed, and saving Salim from the electric chair. Stark (Beyond the Bar: Challenges in a Lawyer’s Life, 2013, etc.) trains his pen on the tricky subject of race in his first novel. The author knowingly and lovingly evokes the lost world of “Jewtown” in this book, and knows both the talk and the turf of his Jewish, Italian, and African-American characters. Some readers may be frustrated by the slow progress of the plot, which evolves over the course of seven years, and the seemingly easy way that strings are tied up in the novel’s final pages. Plenty of others, though, will appreciate the eerie ways in which Lester’s decades-old story resonates with the racial tensions in today’s headlines.
A bildungsroman that convincingly evokes a turbulent era.