Monday, September 12, 2011

Headstone: October 27, 1915 to August 30, 1984 bY Brian James

October 27, 1915 to August 30, 1984

Review by Alice Weiss

Brian James’ account of his relationship with his “non-traditional” father bills itself as part truth, part fiction. Which is truth and which is fiction? The bare facts of the father’s life are: he was short, earned his living at a job where he worked the midnight to eight shift (that shift, it seems, so he could pretend not to have a job when he hung out at Drake’s Bar from 8 AM to 3 P.M. every day). He had a wife, one son, Brian, died at the age of 68, drank vodka, worked just enough hours to support his family and his drinking and gambling habit.

What may well be fiction, or put together from the stories his father or his father’s friends told, is the most interesting part of the book. This is because James takes us into Drake’s Café, “a happiness hangout and conduit for anything except drugs,” and introduces us not only to his father, Junior, but to all his father’s buddies, their nicknames and their various activities. He tells us Junior who drinks “more vodka than Rasputin” typically comes out of work at 8:00 A.M. passes Spike, the bookie, and says ’give me the zero for twenty dollars, Soldier Boy in the Fourth at Rockingham and Cincinnati in the series for my limit.’ Spike without so much as breaking his stride says, You got it Junior.”

James describes the hourly doings of this cast of characters devoted to hanging out in the bar, but who seem to be also secretly working at their eight hours, five days a week jobs, among them, Dad, a night watchman, ‘Mickey Mantle’ half the municipal waste management crew, the big “O” a retired state police officer, Carrier Jack, the mailman. The guys form a community based on all the illicit activity they think is going on and they can pretend they are really a part of. There are two real numbers runners, Spike and Whirl-away but what the rest do is talk trash to each other in the way of 1940’s gangster movies, drink, and have tournament bouts of Name that Tune, oh yes, and fix one another’s cars.

This book is also fun because of the swagger that Brian James has when he talks about his father. There’s a Tom Sawyer scene where Junior gets Brian and all his buddies to paint the house (his mother is away) for a keg of beer. The neighborhood kids, James says, loved Junior, “the highlight of every visit by Tony, Rocco, Paulie, Cedge and Big Kid was an exit via Dad’s cellar gallery of stars. Dad would attach celebrity heads to generic centerfold torsos. Famous persons, the likes of Queen Elizabeth and Mamie Eisenhower, never looked so good as in his collage.” You can feel the rhythm.

The thread that holds the book together, though, is that whatever else his father was he dearly loved his son and his son grew up feeling loved by his father. In one of the last short chapters (and they are all very short) Brian is grown up and working as a law enforcement officer, and discovers that the names of two of the Drakes Café characters, Hughie and Las, appear up in the evidence of one of Brian’s criminal cases. He fears his father might be involved in some way, so he tells him what’s going on. It’s an interesting account because you know he is risking a great deal in exposing his investigation to Junior. Junior brushes him off, tells him not to worry, but what becomes clear to the reader, if not to James himself is that Junior has never really been involved in any criminal endeavor, and, is embarrassed that he has to reveal that to his son, so he doesn’t quite. But you can see the tenderness and care.

All that being said, this is a book that could have really used an editor. The stories are fun but given the half jokey, back hand way Brain tells them, you have to go back and try to figure out what is going on and sometimes you just can’t. At times I got very confused as to what was happening when. This guy has great material. It could have been told much more clearly.

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