Saturday, August 10, 2019

Book Reviews: Button Man

Button Man
Andrew Gross
I thought that this book was a bait and switch. A button man is of course an older term for mobster, or specifically a hitman/enforcer/bodyguard. As the fictional Willie Cicci told us "The boss says to push a button on a guy, I push a button". Later, as the term button man fell out of use, someone who had his "button" was someone who was a full and formal member of an Italian-American organized crime family. This book's title and intro made me think this book would be about early organized crime. 

Well it was and wasn't. What this book really is a fictionalized hagiography to the author's deceased grandfather, a Jewish garment district business owner and later tycoon.

Organized crime makes many people think of the Italian-American variety, the Mafia. Up until at least the 1940s organized crime was just as much a Jewish-American venture. In fact arguably the Jewish syndicate was more powerful. 

Gangsters like Dutch Schultz, Arnold Rothstein, Bugsy Siegel, Gurrah Shapiro, Little Augie Orgen, Meyer Lansky, and Lepke Buchalter were just as infamous and as violent as their Italian-American counterparts. Hollywood has tended to downplay this.

Some Jewish creatives believe that an overemphasis on Italian-American macho criminality has left the Jewish-American image too closely identified with the brainy, sarcastic nebbish, as typified by Woody Allen. These writers want to remind us that for better or worse Jews could be tough guys as well. Meyer Lansky was a hoodlum but he also violently broke up Nazi meetings in New York and beyond. I don't know that Gross feels that way but in his afterword he references as inspirations some writers who do.

This story follows the life choices of Morris Rabishevsky (Raab) and his brothers. The Rabishevksy brothers grow up in horrible poverty on New York's Lower East Side at the turn of the century. Their father dies early; another brother dies in an accident. 

The brothers must provide for their family. The youngest, most driven and toughest, Morris, apprentices in the garment business. Morris soon becomes a major player, eventually opening up his own firm. The oldest, Sol, becomes an accountant and bookkeeper. Sol's nowhere near as aggressive or as tough as his youngest brother but he does have a way with numbers. Harry feels responsible for the childhood death of their brother Shemuel. As a result Harry becomes a ne'er do well. He associates with criminals and rarely keeps honest jobs.

Morris rises in the garment trade and crosses paths with the unions. The gangster Lepke Buchalter has become a labor racketeer and the power behind the various garment district unions and business organizations. You either play ball with Lepke or you don't play at all. 

Recalcitrant business owners or legitimate union representatives have been beaten. But that's Lepke being nice. Stubborn holdouts have been blinded, tortured, shot dead, thrown from the tops of buildings, had trucks hijacked, had inventory destroyed, or had buildings burned down. Once pushed, Lepke pushes back harder until the other person submits or is destroyed. Morris remembers Lepke when Lepke was just a two-bit hoodlum bullying kids for lunch money and not a nationally known labor racketeer and the head of Murder Inc., organized crime's enforcement arm. Lepke has committed and ordered dozens, if not hundreds of murders. But Morris wasn't afraid to fight Lepke when he was a kid and he's not afraid to fight Lepke now. 

The situation is complicated by the fact that Harry is working for one of Lepke's people. Lepke claims to want to help Harry. Lepke also claims to respect Morris. But a gangster's charm and niceness only goes so far. Is Morris still willing to put his life at risk now that he has a wife and children?

I would have enjoyed the story more if it hadn't been so thoroughly centered on Morris. We see everyone from Morris' point of view. Harry is hapless. The story would have introduced some greater moral complexities if a competent Harry had actually gone completely to the dark side. Most characters besides Morris are flat. The story is also very dialogue heavy, which for my money hindered the author in drawing the larger picture of the New York environment from the turn of the 20th century to the 1940s. This was just under 400 pages in hardcover. I did enjoy a lot of the Yiddish, including some phrases that my high school chemistry teacher for some reason never shared with us.
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