An insider’s look at a sui generis Brooklyn institution.
Sultan’s account of his tenure as a regular of Sunny’s, a storied tavern nestled in the outer-borough wilds of Red Hook, Brooklyn, functions effectively as both a warm celebration of a singular character and his unusual saloon and as an evocative consideration of Red Hook’s colorful history and distinctive personality. On the other hand, the narrative often veers perilously close to a recitation of a stranger’s crazy nights on the town—the sort of tale that the teller finds endlessly fascinating and hilarious but which the listener endures with a polite, I-guess-you-had-to-be-there smile. Sultan’s self-consciously literary prose style—when not slumming in a backwater dive, he hobnobbed with the likes of George Plimpton—exacerbates the general sense of authorial self-indulgence. The arch descriptions of the various eccentrics, bohemians, criminals, and lost souls who populate Sunny’s suggest a condescending sort of self-congratulation. The titular Sunny, a charismatic, unlettered, but brilliantly loquacious poet/painter/bartender who conducts his life and business as a series of artistic whims, does vividly emerge as a memorable, fully fleshed-out character. “He could be loyal and libertine, sometimes migrainous in his stubbornness and his foolish addictions,” writes the author. “I admire him to no end for being the most original man I have ever met.” Sunny’s secluded bar, open only on Fridays, home of cheap drinks, impromptu hootenannies, and experimental film screenings, sounds like a uniquely strange and cozy urban refuge. It deserves a remembrance, and Sultan’s will serve, but the excessively mandarin tone casts a pall. Readers with further interest in the bar should watch the episode of No Reservations where Anthony Bourdain visits the bar.
Sultan has a terrific subject in Sunny and his semilegendary watering hole, but the approach is too cute.