Teenage friends in 1950s Brooklyn dodge cops and mobsters in this YA thriller.
In June 1959, Aaron Lipstein—known as “the Lip”—is the class valedictorian of the elite Bronx High School of Science in New York City, and he plans to enter Columbia University in the fall. His friend Charlie Figatelli is a petty thief who spends his time on the streets of Brooklyn. Aaron has a strained relationship with his dad, a taxi driver who earned a Silver Star in World War II. Charlie’s father, meanwhile, runs a bakery that’s actually a front for gambling and moneylending. Things get complicated when Charlie persuades Aaron to help him steal hubcaps; Charlie steals a car, leaving Aaron literally holding the bag, or bags, filled with stolen goods, until the local bully, Vito, expropriates them. The car is eventually found, and the cops interview Aaron, who says that Vito stole it. Then Mr. Figatelli’s truck is found in Jamaica Bay full of bullet holes, and everyone thinks he’s dead. Charlie insists on searching the marshes of the bay for his dad’s body, so that his father can have a real funeral, and not just a simple memorial service. Further complications arise when a mobster follows them, in order to make sure that Mr. Figatelli is really dead. The marshes prove to be another world, complete with a derelict amusement park, a deranged World War II veteran, and an isolated village of Dutch-speaking fishermen. Debut author Charnow has written an engaging period tale about fathers and sons. Written from Aaron’s point of view, it captures much of the stress and anxiety of being a teenager, along with Aaron’s up-and-down feelings about what his father has made of his life, and what he will make of his own. There are minor issues, however: The author’s admitted “liberties” with historical events are ill-advised; Aaron’s inner monologues sometimes seem overly formal for a self-conscious teen; and some of the violence near the end of the book (“Blood spewed from Stellini’s mouth, spraying out like paint flicked from a brush”) seems excessive.
An often compelling story that immerses its readers in a very different time.