The yuppies are coming! Kurlansky, tackler of seemingly any nonfiction subject (Choice Cuts, 2002; 1968, 2004, etc.), distills his many passions into his first novel.
It’s the 1980s on Manhattan’s Lower East Side (before it was called the East Village, Alphabet City, or other real-estate-provided monikers), and Nathan Seltzer doesn’t want to sell out. He runs a copy shop in a building owned by his parents, with whom Nathan, his wife, and young daughter make up one of the neighborhood’s last old Jewish families. A copy chain is eyeing Nathan’s store, offering a cool half-million for it even as the area’s diverse hullabaloo is giving way to the first colonizing elements of gentrification. This is Nathan’s first dilemma. His second is his affair with Karoline, the frumpy-looking but suspiciously sexy daughter of the German owners of the Edelweiss Bakery, whom Nathan’s uncle Nusan (a Holocaust survivor of pitch-black humor) is convinced were Nazis. Meanwhile, over at the ramshackle Casita Meshugaloo, Chow Mein Vega (whose song “Yiddish Boogaloo” was sort of a Puerto Rican/Jewish anthem for the neighborhood) is trying without much success to grow vegetables like they do back on the island. There’s also the matter of the murder of Eli Rabinowitz, apparently by drug dealers, and a seemingly random shooting spree on the Fourth of July that’s got the cops interested. But the more novelistic elements here are of little interest. This is a story of people and places, not action and reaction. Kurlansky avoids the tired screeds against yuppification. Though there’s a definite air of the elegy here, he prefers just to celebrate the neighborhood as it is, a frothy, ever-changing stew of humanity: “drug dealers, family people, shopkeepers, observant Jews, secular Jews, all three Sals, and boogalistas alike.” Change is coming, but that’s not the end of the world.
Sugary but far from insubstantial: a definitive portrait of an era that’s all the better for not really trying to be one.