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The first novel in 12 years from the once-notorious author of Last Exit to Brooklyn is an embarrassingly cartoonish amalgam of West Side Story, Edward Lewis Wallant’s The Pawnbroker, and--I kid you not--Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. It’s the story, told in Selby’s characteristic long, claustrophobic paragraphs filled with unpunctuated run-on sentences, of a young black teenager rescued from the murderous hatred that threatens his own life by a lonely concentration camp survivor. Bobby and his Hispanic girlfriend Maria are savagely beaten by a gang of ’spic muthahfuckahs— and left in the street to die. Maria does not survive, but Bobby is rescued by an elderly widowed handyman, Werner Schultz (who for obscure reasons calls himself “Moishe”), who restores him to health, then tries to dissuade the anguished kid from seeking revenge. As Bobby regains his strength, Moishe gradually reveals the details of his family’s imprisonment, their liberation from the camp and new life in America, and the loss of Moishe’s only son to the Vietnam War. Bobby subsequently tracks down Maria’s murderer, but, at the crucial moment, is unable to kill him. This simplistic novel’s flaws are too numerous for brief summary. Suffice it to say that glaring improbabilities (Moishe’s basement apartment contains, among other wonders, a workout room and Jacuzzi) and unrelenting sentimentality make it impossible to believe in the reality of Selby’s characters, much less feel anything for them. Brief glimpses of Bobby’s fatherless family and Maria’s grieving women relatives are only token attempts to vary a sluggish narrative that resorts to such bathetic effects as a cleansing snowstorm that briefly obliterates the city’s grime and Moishe’s makeshift Christmas celebration, which presumably dries up the last remaining flecks of Bobby’s “righteous” anger. Almost 40 years ago, Selby produced a white-hot vision of America’s mean streets that remains a classic illustration of realistic fiction at its most brutally eloquent. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that he’s fated to be remembered as a one-book wonder.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-7145-3024-7
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Marion Boyars
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1998


FictionME AND THE DEVIL by Nick Tosches
by Nick Tosches