BREAD AND CIRCUS by Morris Renek

BREAD AND CIRCUS

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KIRKUS REVIEW

The brash, steamroller prose that powered Renek's lusty Siam Miami (1969) and less so Heck (1971) and Las Vegas Strip (1975) finds its perfect match in the author's first novel in 12 years, a rousing historical that traces the rise and fall of New York's notorious Boss Tweed. Renek draws Tweed to Rabelaisian proportions, opening in 1863 with the Boss' ""friendly face rising up for air from a plate of oysters."" Done gorging, Tweed goes to Tammany Hall to auction off city jobs to the highest briber, then on to his mistress for a quick tumble. Indulgence in these appetites, Renek shows, is made possible by the harvests of cunning: tense scenes of the Civil War Draft Riots set the stage for Tweed's skillful manipulation of public opinion that results in his emergence as the city's savior. A marvelous cameo of Cornelius Vanderbilt follows, as the foul-talking robber baron summons the Boss (""I want dat slimy fat barstid Tweed to climb up here"") and bribes him to lobby against archenemy and fellow railroader Jay Gould--who hires away Tweed in turn. With Gould's backing, Tweed consolidates his power as New York's kingpin, his reach extending from Fifth Avenue mansions to the grimy cellars where hooligans bet on battles between bulldogs and rats (Renek's energetic depiction of the city's underworld is exceptionally colorful). But the charismatic Tweed at last meets his match in cartoonist Thomas Nast, here portrayed as a gentle, crusading soul. Nast's barbed newspaper sketches of Tweed inflame the public; when the Times prints stolen Tweed records detailing gross corruption, the Boss is tried and sentenced to prison, only to escape: sadly, Renek gives short shrift to the potentially exciting tale of Tweed on the run; two short paragraphs detail his recapture and death in a N.Y. prison. A welcome comeback by Renek and his best novel since Siam Miami: a rollicking read.

Pub Date: June 12th, 1987
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson