A man newly released from prison thinks his hometown has changed entirely—while the reader only wishes he had changed.
Belly O’Leary (named for a famous belly-flop he took as a kid) is 59 when he comes back home to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., after four years in jail for using his bar as a bookie joint. Belly is released—during a heat wave—in August of 2001, a specificity of date and time (just before 9/11) possibly intended to add a touch of doubt or foreboding. But the story is drawn forward less by dramatic growth or intensification in its themes as by the near-stasis and repetition of them. No matter the cornucopias of background and detail, Belly remains, dramatically, simply incorrigible and predictable—opinionated, bigoted, selfish, mean, unchanging. Granted, these are only his first few days out of the slammer, but his blunt doggedness in doing everything he’s not supposed to do brings neither surprise nor charm. He hits the bottle—hard; laments that his old betting friends have vanished from a town stripped (he insists) of its character by gentrification and by a change of town administration; and most crudely berates his female parole officer. He berates, too, his youngest daughter, for marrying a Jew; his oldest for having a dull husband and, he insists, a lover; his second for being a lesbian (when she told him about it, he slugged her); even his third daughter for having died (she was the one who, to please him, tried to act like a son). If there were the least thing mellow in him, lovable or forgivable, the novel, perhaps, could grow. As is, though, it’s all Belly all the time—company few will want to keep. A grace note at end suggests reform, but unconvincingly.
Abundant and highly capable detail of people and place, yet psychologically tedious debut.