The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats
Dzanc Books, 2009
I fell in love with this book before I ever owned it. First of all, that title: The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats. Like some pop lyric that’s both catchy and a little weird, it lodged in my brain and would pop up at the weirdest moments. Shoeshine cats… what are those? And the photo on the cover, of the rakish young man with a cigarette screwed into the corner of his grin… who is he?
Shoeshine Cats, of course, isn’t a those but a he: Shushan Cats, head of the 1960s New York Jewish Mafia, a pint-sized, outsized legend in the community:
[O]ne of those small men native to Brooklyn who appeared to have been boiled down from someone twice the size, the kind who when a doctor tries to give him an injection the needle bends.
He bursts into the Bhotke Young Men’s Society—a local association of mostly immigrant Jews, fictional but based on any number of actual landsmen’s groups that existed at the time—where young Russell Newhouse has just taken on the role of recording secretary by default, as the society’s only native-born English speaker. Cats’ beloved mother has died and he’s in need of a plot and burial. In one fell swoop Russell goes from smart-ass orphan, bookworm, City College student, and freewheeling skirt chaser to apprentice mobster—and then Shushan Cats disappears and things, as they tend to do, get really interesting.
In many ways, the book takes its energetic noir premise and runs with it. Kestin gives us a wonderful mixed bag of underworld characters: Cats’ bodyguard, a “nice enough meatball” so fixated on his own wife he’s known as Ira-Myra’s; a couple of hapless cops named Kennedy and Cohen; the enormous, ponytailed, yellow-crocodile-shoes-wearing criminal lawyer, Fritzi von Zeppelin; Shushan’s sister Terri, a bombshell lesbian psychotherapist; the crazy Texan Jacky—keep an eye on him—and assorted members of the Italian, Puerto Rican, Chinese, and black mobs. The language is colorful and right on, bopping to a Yiddishe Brooklyn rhythm that rings true throughout. There are beatings and retributions and plots and standoffs, and through it all the 20-year-old Russell keeps it together, does his mentor proud, and maybe even grows up a little.
And then again, The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats is quick to take the genre and set it on its ear. The main conceit, which we dicover early on, is that Shushan Cats isn’t your average Brookyn tough. He’s an autodidact, a dese-dem-and-dose guy with a secret library in his swank hotel suite. He steals lines from F. Scott Fitzgerald, quotes de la Rochefoucauld to the cops, and references the “seventeen fucking accents and dialects” in Huckleberry Finn. And because Russell is a budding scholar himself, the dialogue often veers into the literary.
“[P]ulling a trigger, that’s a whole different dimension. that’s why I vote for Wystan Hugh Auden as head of the joint chiefs. Ginsberg, he’d make a great leader of the Corps. These are guys they don’t back down in the face of bad news. Although, let me tell you, Wystan is not the kind of guy who’ll let on what he thinks. Should be in the Mafia.”
“You can tell that from reading him? How do you know what he thinks other than what’s in his—” I stopped. “Wystan?”
“You want to meet him? Miserable son of a bitch, but like I say, he’d make a fine general…. A general and a poet are exactly the same in one thing. What they do they have to do with critical efficiency. Not a word or action wasted. And the action has to be more important than the man who creates it. You know Yeats?”
“You knew Yeats too?”
“Of course not. Yeats died fucking I don’t know forty years ago. I know Auden because he plays poker.”
I confess to being a sucker for this kind of twist. Even if it verges on the improbable, there’s enough action and good, gritty noirish detail to keep my disbelief suspended. Besides, Shushan pronounces Camus “Kaymus,” like all self-taught men the world over. I bought it wholesale, and enjoyed the weird literary tough-guy banter.
Where the book lost me at times were the moments when the author waxes didactic on one plane or another. It’s obvious that he identifies strongly with his protagonist—Russell is most definitely something of a Murray Stu. That perfect photo on the cover turns out to be Kestin at 20. Often the pedagogy involves his politics, which at times threaten to take over the otherwise rollicking narrative—The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats is set in 1963, with JFK’s assassination, the civil rights movement, and the changing demographic of New York as backdrops—and Kestin is not shy about weaving his biases into the story. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. At one point Russell, holding court with various branches of the New York mob as proxy for the missing Cats, magnanimously presents the head of the African-American faction with a large check for the Reverend Martin Luther King—to be delivered in person.
The brothers looked at one another, waiting for more. Finally Royce let it out. “What the catch, man?”
“The catch is I want you guys to take part in this,” I said. “I want you to be there when those redneck assholes try to bust up some little piccaninny trying to go to the wrong school in Selma, Alabama or people trying to register to vote in Philadelphia, Mississippi, which activity you probably don’t bother with up here—which is okay, because the right to vote also means the right not to, except that you probably voted for that schmuck Kennedy—or trying to get a tuna on toast at any drug store below the Mason-Dixon Line. I want you and the brothers to be down there, because with guys like you down there the heads going to be busted won’t just be nappy ones.”
Kestin’s heart is in the right place (unless you’re a fan of the late JFK), but there are times when that explicitness threatens to derail the narrative. Terri’s street-corner psychoanalysis of Russell’s mother complex comes to mind, and an odd bit of graphic sex that would be more at home in the Penthouse Forum than here. Fortunately, the novel has enough steam that it doesn’t suffer from the occasional loss of such. The book is fun—profane and often incongruous, but always entertaining. And in these post-Sopranos days when it’s tempting to cry oversaturation with the trope of the accessible, humanized mobster, Kestin offers one of the best explanations I’ve read for the genre’s appeal:
Most of the Bhotke members had emigrated in the twenties and thirties; some had sailed out of the then-free port of Danzig as late as 1939, the Hitlerites having sunk the next ship in the harbor. Some arrived in the late forties and early fifties, decorated with blue number on their forearms or, if they had fought as partisans in the forests, a parallel coldness of heart like that of caged animals who were now free except for the memory of the cages and those who had put them there…. Was it any wonder that a Jew who brandished a baseball bat and feared no one, and who was known to fear no one, might become a hero to the Jews who survived?
To the members of the Bhotke Young Men’s Society, Shushan Cats was no criminal. The criminal statutes held no validity for those to whom the law meant only authorized starvation, torture, death. Everything done to the Jews of Europe, the Gypsies, the homosexuals, the Communists, the Socialists, the crippled, the mentally and physically retarded and the mentally and physically ill—everything done to these had been absolutely legal…. Under these circumstances, that Shushan Cats was a Jewish gangster not only could not be held against him, but was a matter for celebration.
In the end, the book is a great ride, a two-fisted tale that wears its heart on its sleeve, giving it a certain guilelessness. Besides, who can resist a wise guy and his protégé in the back of a limousine talking about Philip Roth, J.D. Salinger, and “that French guy,” Kaymus.
“Cahmuh,” I said.
“You know, kid, I got such good reports about you, and then you go and act like you’re twenty years old and correcting your uneducated old man…. Let me tell you something, kid. Never correct somebody while wearing his suit.”