THREE WISE MEN by Robert L. Fenton


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Three nice Jewish boys make good in this Prohibition-era gangster saga.

If you’re Jewish and live in New York in the early 20th century, there’s no way an anti-Semitic power structure is going to let you get ahead. Or so it seems to young Irving Lowenstein. Despite graduating at the top of his Columbia University Law School class, he figures that his illicit gambling operation is his best ticket out of the Delancey Street ghetto. Irving joins forces with Mendy Goldblatt, a gang leader with an animus against WASP swells (sample monologue: “No way you can come in this club and piss on a bunch of Jews and dagoes from the Lower East Side just because your old man owns a few steel mills and you’re a Princeton boy”). Completing the trio is Lou Kravitz, who, after his Wharton MBA lands him nothing but a dead-end job as a Wall Street investment banker, realizes that organized crime is the only venue where talent is fairly rewarded. Together, the three strivers expand their criminal empire to include union rackets, bootlegging and swank speakeasies–where the reader bumps into the likes of Mary Pickford and Flo Ziegfeld–even as they retain their mensch-hood by helping widows, orphans and rabbis and keeping heroin out of the neighborhood. Fenton throws in floozies and sardonic violence–Mendy fastidiously waits for Shabbas sunset before gunning down one Jew-baiting Irish thug–but he is drawn more to his heroes’ commercial acumen, especially their complex dealings with Canadian distilleries. Indeed, there’s not much shape to the plot besides the steady burgeoning of their wealth and clout. The author’s somewhat shopworn portrayal of gangsterism as an immigrant business success story against a bigoted Establishment makes little sense, since his protagonists have well-paying legitimate careers open to them. Still, Fenton mounts an entertaining, if quite broad, burlesque–“Oy, vey, the police are at the door!”–of Jewish life and the New York underworld during the Jazz Age.

An exciting romp through racketeering.

Pub Date: Nov. 16th, 2007
ISBN: 978-1-60145-347-1
Program: Kirkus Indie
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