In Gold’s debut, small-time Brooklyn hood Howard "Windows" Fenster sells weed and collects vigorish for capo Vinnie Five-Five Spoleto, but Howard’s passion is the Penguin Classics library he inherited from his mob accountant father.
Then Scrunchy Cho, another hoodlum, kills a working girl in Vinnie’s Sheepshead Bay sporting house. That murder ignites a war among Five-Five’s gang, Crazy Bo Moon’s Triad, and Vlad the Impaler’s Brighton Beach Russians. Vinnie’s first casualties are Double Down (shot) and Garlic (pieces stuffed in garbage bags), and so worried Howard, "a half-Jew and as wholly ambivalent," moves out of his sister Judith’s basement. Howard loves Judith, and he’s disappearing to protect her, but he has no place to hide until he meets Ariel, an "ultraconventional girl" in a "pretentious cafe." The love connection’s immediate, and Howard moves into Ariel’s basement while remaining on call for Vinnie. Howard quickly learns well-educated, sophisticated Ariel is obsessed with bondage and sadomasochism, and when she discovers that the monosyllabic and often vulgar Howard is an erudite autodidact rather than the brute of her fantasies, the love affair takes a left turn. Gold has good fun with amoral mobsters like the psychopathic Irish-Italian called IRA, the gluttonous Frankie Hog, and crazy Pauli Bones, who "destroys money in the crematorium of financial idiocy." Dialogue seems spot-on, especially if mob guys rely heavily on f-bombs, but the setting’s more commentary than descriptive. There’s comedy to be had, especially as Howard helps Mrs. Five-Five dispose of a body while contemplating references to Aeschylus’s Oresteia. Irony too, as Howard mopes through a critique of capitalism versus communism, characterizes mob violence as being "as meaningless and pointless as…Vietnam and Iraq," and debates Orwell versus Dostoyevsky with Ivan, the lone Russian mobster who doesn’t want to kill him.
Fun stuff, this oddball mating of The Godfather and The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.