KING OF THE JEWS by Nick Tosches


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Intoxicated with words, including those he crafts himself, Tosches (In the Hand of Dante, 2002, etc.) offers deft ruminations on large matters under cover of the biography of a gangster.

A foxy writer, Tosches starts at the beginning: Genesis. First, with the word, is Hebrew etymology, then the stories of Gilgamesh, Baal, Joshua, Ishtar (aka “Esther”) and, eventually, on to Louis the Lump, Big Tim Sullivan, assorted chorines, bimbos and Rudy Giuliani (who, like Adolf Hitler, wickedly outlawed smoking). Not forgotten are U.S. Grant, Heinrich Heine, Boss Tweed and many colorful denizens of New York’s notorious Five Points. All this is wrapped around the story of Arnold Rothstein, the Jewish-American Moriarty, mentor to Legs Diamond, banker to the drug trade, inspiration to Runyon and Fitzgerald and putative fixer of the 1919 World Series. Regarding the fix, Tosches says it ain’t so. He’s generally dubious about most received information. “I’m telling you,” says Tosches, “exactly what I told my ex-wife: Believe nothing unless you hear it from me.” Arnold’s father, “Abe the Just,” was less saintly than credited as being, he thinks. (One recent text is dissed, though not cited, for buying that notion, while the same book, this time cited, is called “enticing” on the topic of Rothstein’s unsolved murder.) The debunking is most liberally spread as the skein of tangled connections becomes as complex as string theory. Assiduous research, the author complains, “has brought me nothing but the worsening of my eyesight and the waste of years of my life. And I did it all for you.” Here are extracts from newspaper accounts of Rothstein’s death, the coroner’s report, surrogate’s hearings, and miscellaneous matter. But Tosches gives us less, frankly, on the gangster’s life than on world history with Rothstein somehow cast in the role of Everyman. The result is frequently flamboyant, often lively, always diverting.

Tosches’s Theory of Everything, disguised as biography: energetic, histrionic, polemical and heaps of fun.

Pub Date: May 3rd, 2005
ISBN: 0-06-621118-2
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 2005


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