Two Jewish boys grow up in 1950s Boston.
Joel and his older brother, Steven, are the grandsons of a Jewish fixer they call Papa, and the boys quickly become involved in the not-quite-legal activities that comprise the family business. Papa takes bets on horses, elections, and the fate of the Boston Braves, soon to be the ex–Boston Braves. Joel and Steven may not understand all that goes on around them, but that doesn’t stop them from trying. There’s also the mystery of their Uncle Jake, who escaped Germany just after Kristallnacht, and their Auntie Rose, who falls into a period of grief every November, like clockwork. Auntie Rose’s old diary entries pepper the narrative, but the boys can’t seem to make her story, or Uncle Jake’s, add up. This is Hirshberg’s first novel, and it’s an ambitious one. Philip Roth’s influence is plain in the attempt to capture mid-20th-century Jewish life in the city (though Hirshberg has Boston where Roth had Newark) as well as the legacy of the Holocaust and the trials and tribulations of various characters whose lives become irretrievably intertwined. Unfortunately, Hirshberg doesn’t have Roth’s ease for storytelling, and his novel doesn’t hang together. The three main threads of the plot—Uncle Jake and Auntie Rose’s mystery; the fate of the Braves; and the election of a congressman destined to become the first Catholic president of the United States—never come together. Worse, the writing is stuffed with clichés, minor characters are hard to keep straight, and the novel’s whole frame—Joel, set to retire from his career as a radioman, looks back on his childhood—seems entirely unnecessary. Hirshberg would do well to drop Roth’s influence and see where his own imagination takes him.
An ambitious attempt that ultimately fails to tell a moving, never mind coherent, story.