Email this review


A first novel that explores the life and times of the now-vanished secondhand booksellers on Fourth Avenue in the Manhattan of the 1940's, when O'Dwyer was Mayor and Truman the President. Howard's over-80 father had run the moth-eaten store before he died. It was all he left to Howard, who didn't finish high school and doesn't read books but is blessed with common sense, warmth, and an equable disposition. The same could not be said for his father's old friend H.L. Mencken, who still comes into the store. Memories of his verbal battles with the old man are woven throughout the story. Meanwhile, Howard runs into trouble when he succumbs to the pleas of Lenny Gould, a pesky, pushy kid he's helping through C.C.N.Y. because of a secret family tie. Lenny claims to have access to a valuable historic manuscript that will make Howard's fortune if he can come up with $4,000--and, by way of verification, takes him uptown to meet tony, top-of-the-line book-dealer Ronald Newberry. At the same time, notorious book-thief Richard Larch has terrorized the staff at the New York Public Library, where Howard's girlfriend Ann Elkin works, between attempts at producing another Forever Amber. By the close, Howard will get his manuscript, but in the process he'll find Lenny murdered in his apartment and himself almost strangled by the lurking Larch, who's eventually charged with the killing. Not until Howard goes to Baltimore to seek the advice of a stroke-ridden Mencken does the truth about scam and murderer emerge. Swaim has a fine-tuned ear and eye for the language and look of the street and the period. There's a bit too much of both here, though, along with feverish plotting and spindly motivation; but nostalgia fans, Mencken admirers, and book-lovers reminded of one-time pleasures and treasures won't complain. An original and imaginative debut.

Pub Date: Nov. 14th, 1988
Publisher: St. Martin's