IF ANYONE ASKS, SAY I DIED FROM THE HEARTBREAKING BLUES by Philip Cioffari

IF ANYONE ASKS, SAY I DIED FROM THE HEARTBREAKING BLUES

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A single early summer night serves as a young man’s proving ground in this coming-of-age novel.

The Bronx, 1960. On his 18th birthday, Joey “Hunt” Hunter plans to take Debby Ann Murphy to the prom, a first date that he hopes will lead to something more. Still haunted by the death of his brother, Toby, the bookish, Fordham-bound Hunt lacks confidence, muscles, and dancing ability—in short, all the things that might make him attractive to his outer borough female peers. Predictably, his birthday is not exactly going as planned. Hunt gets a bloody nose from his dancing partner, Sal “the Butcher” Buccarelli, in his all-male gym class. Later at the prom, Debby turns out to be much more interested in the Butcher than in Hunt. Hunt’s attention wanders, too, when he sees a vision in a blue dress: “At least she seemed like a vision, the dark-eyed girl with flowing hair and a loose easy stride crossing in front of him on the dancefloor.” Hunt doesn’t know her name, and she quickly disappears into the night. His date with Debby fizzles, so Hunt launches a new plan: to celebrate his legal drinking age by barhopping across the neighborhood. Of course, the night continues to take unexpected turns. While the threat of a dangerous gang’s rumored raid on the neighborhood percolates in the atmosphere, the Butcher’s own Brando Boys might prove to be greater trouble for Hunt and his ragtag friends. As the hours tick down to dawn, the confused and heartbroken Hunt searches for love, inspiration, and meaning among the myriad characters of the Bronx. 

Cioffari (The Bronx Kill, 2017, etc.) portrays Hunt—whose ambitious plans include composing an epic poem about the neighborhood and becoming the preeminent radio DJ in the tri-state area—as a man at odds with his surroundings: “He worried that this place, this Bronx of his heritage, would never be worthy of an epic. What was there that could possibly be heroic about prom night, els, souped-up ’55 Mercs, greaser Romeo football jocks like Sal the Butcher?” Even so, it’s clear that both Hunt and the author relish the milieu, and the book drips with a sincere nostalgia for the time and place. It’s a short novel at just over 150 pages, and it in no sense overstays its welcome, pressing forward continuously at the pace of the Roddle (“part duck-walk, part shimmy and part Lindy”). Despite the many wonderful details about Hunt’s world—his job as a “Desert Rat” selling orangeade at the beach, for instance—the protagonist is a bit too much of a type to be truly compelling. This flatness extends to the supporting cast, which isn’t really all that colorful by the standards of fiction set in midcentury New York. For all of Hunt’s uncertainty, readers will have none: Everything ends up just where they expect, with very little in the way of surprises. The tale may perfectly encapsulate the way a man of Hunt’s generation looks back on his own youth, but it doesn’t make for riveting reading for those with no attachments to that time or place.

A richly detailed but paint-by-numbers bildungsroman set in the Bronx.

ISBN: 978-1-60489-238-3
Page count: 156pp
Publisher: Livingston Press
Program: Kirkus Indie
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