A literary son traces his fugitive father in a pulpy yet cerebral memoir.
Novelist Di Prisco (The Alzhammer, 2016, etc.) roots this sequel to his previous memoir, Subway to California (2014), in his serendipitous discovery of a raft of trial transcripts concerning his father, a small-time criminal and gambling addict who helped crooked New York City cops shake down bookmakers and then testified against them, apparently receiving consideration for his own offenses. This explained the family’s flight during his childhood from Brooklyn to California but opened up numerous other questions for him. “My father didn’t exactly come out of nowhere, but it was close,” writes the author. “It was on the mean streets of Brooklyn in the hardscrabble fifties where he made his bones.” The memoir’s strongest aspect is this unsparing portrait of his family as a whirl of combative intensity. Although Di Prisco always saw his father as “unmanageable, impulsive, bottled-up, unhinged,” his volatile mother and his brother (who himself became a career criminal and heroin addict) considered him “a liar and a con man, a chump and a loser.” The author relies on the trial transcripts (and other primary sources such as family letters) to evoke both a vanished urban era and a seamy moral landscape of casual criminality: “All of us kids knew of the hit man who lived on the block.” Yet, despite his father’s lifelong gambling habit and tendency toward prevarication, he redeemed himself later in life as a labor union executive, winning nine consecutive elections: “He took pride in the job and worked very hard….His Brother Teamster leaders always spoke of him in laudatory terms.” This sprawling narrative is punctuated by Di Prisco’s reflections on literature, faith, mortality, and his own tangled romances and outré experiences, ranging from cocaine addiction to mentoring adolescents. When his father died after their relationship had finally stabilized, he wondered, “for whom, besides myself, am I writing this book?”
Despite some solipsistic meandering, a deft, amusing, and tough memoir.