Paperbacks: Once upon a time in America

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The Independent Culture
Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons and Gangster Dreams

by Rich Cohen Vintage pounds 7.99

To be a Jew in America is to be - what? Middle-class, educated, kids-to-college comfortable; or that's what Rich Cohen thought when he was growing up in Illinois. And more than that, to be Jew was to be a victim, to have the Holocaust always at your back. But once upon a time in America, there were tough Jews, gangsters, men who fought back. Some of them are still remembered, though not for being Jewish: Dutch Schultz, Bugsy Siegel, Legs Diamond, Murder Incorporated. There were others whose names maybe don't have the same resonance, but who were giants in their day: Monk Eastman, Arnold Rothstein, Louis Lepke, Meyer Lansky.

The history of Jewish gangsters hasn't just been forgotten, it has been deliberately buried. When Lansky's son named his son Meyer Lansky II, the old man was furious: "The idea was to fade into America, not brandish your name."

But Cohen thinks American Jews need new role models. So he sets joyfully about unearthing this past, revelling in stories of gunfights and summary justice, of rats who died cheap, dirty deaths and proud men who kept their mouths shut all the way to the chair. He relishes the crazily energised language, as when he quotes from the dying testimony of Dutch Schultz, as recorded by a police stenographer: "Please, Mother. You pick me up now ... a boy has never wept, nor dashed a thousand kiln ... please crack down on the Chinaman's friends and Hitler's commander. Mother is the best bet, and don't let Satan draw you too fast. I am half-crazy." And he glories in those names: Bugsy, Gangy, Dukey, Waxey, Happy, Dopey and Doc (all genuine - Snow White goes to Sing Sing); Kid Twist Reles, Gurrah Shapiro, Moey Dimples, Abbadabba Berman, Tick-Tock Tannenbaum ...

It's a delirious, hilarious book, shot through with biblical grandeur. Sometimes the delirium leads to confusion: on page 45, Cohen tells how Kid Dropper was shot in front of the Essex Street courthouse by a "mysterious figure" who gave his name as Louis Cohen; on page 84, the victim is Dopey Benny Fein (and there's a photo of a wanted poster that gives Louis Cohen as one of the many aliases of Louis Lepke, so maybe not so mysterious after all). Mostly it has the bewildering clarity of fever. Morally dubious, I guess, but still sort of magnificent.

A Gift Imprisoned: The Poetic Life of Matthew Arnold

by Ian Hamilton

Bloomsbury pounds 7.99

Whoever would have thought that the life of the author of "Dover Beach" and "Thyrsis" could be fun? But Hamilton's "poetic life", is witty and readable, as well as encouragingly brief (it stops short with the end of Arnold's poetic career, at the age of 46, and misses out the later critical works - Culture and Anarchy - that are his other claim to fame). Arnold was also the son of Dr Arnold of Rugby, the great scourge of the Oxford Movement and reformer of the public schools, and as Hamilton sketches it, what shaped his life and his poems was a belief that poetry was mere self-indulgence, that duty called him elsewhere. So this slim volume contains an argument about poetry in general - is it useful? Can it be justified? - and not just about Arnold's work.

Unicorn's Blood

by Patricia Finney

Phoenix pounds 6.99

The second of Finney's Elizabethan thrillers - after Firedrake's Eye - revolves around the execution of Mary Queen of Scots and whether the Virgin Queen might not have been a virgin after all. Finney's mock- 16th-century prose isn't hugely convincing (basically, modern prose with some cod-archaic syntax and a few Elizabethan slang terms dropped in), but if you liked Iain Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost you'll probably love this.

One Moonlit Night/Un Nos Ola Leuad

by Caradog Prichard

trans Philip Mitchell

Penguin pounds 7.99

Prichard's only novel, a classic of modern Welsh literature, presents a relentlessly grim picture of life in a slate-quarrying village during and after the First World War: slipping between past and present, it builds up a kind of anti-pastoral characterised by poverty, suicide, sexual perversion, madness and murder. This is, as the introduction explains, all heavily autobiographical, Prichard's own mother, like the unnamed narrator's, having lost her husband in the war and then been driven to a breakdown, ending her life in an asylum. But it only seems self- indulgent when Prichard strays furthest from his own experience - the narrator turns to murder (or so it seems), and the novel ends with him preparing to kill himself; the worst thing Prichard ever did was to sub-edit for the Daily Telegraph. A queer, affecting story, here presented in parallel Welsh and English texts.

Breakfast on Pluto

by Patrick McCabe

Picador pounds 6.99

Or, The Life and Times of Patrick Braden - otherwise known as Pussy, Pat Puss, her eminence Miss P Pussy, a transvestite prostitute (whoops! I mean, high-class escort girl) from rural Ireland, whose giddy-goat progress takes her from the village of Tyreelin to the heady, glitzy atmosphere of early Seventies London and brief notoriety as a callous IRA mastermind. McCabe's Booker-shortlisted novel switches between reality - sort of - and breathless fantasy in a virtuoso display of camp. But behind the girlish giggles and swoons is a growling depth of indignation and anguish directed at Ireland and England and the stuff they do to each other. Assured, funny and very original.

Paradise

by Toni Morrison

Vintage pounds 6.99

In deepest Oklahoma, the men of Ruby, a peaceful black township, set out to slaughter the women of the Convent, a deserted girl's school which now shelters a variety of abused women. Dipping into the histories of the two communities, Morrison conjures up a hubbub of detail that gives Paradise a fascination and moral authority all its own. But I'd have to say that for a Nobel lau- reate she is a sloppy writer, slapping on the adverbs or dropping into vague poeticisms at the slightest provocation. A strange, brilliant mess of a book.

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