The Bowery was a dangerous place to live in New York in the early 1900s. Gangs ruled the streets and controlled the unions. They also exerted their influence over their elected representatives and government officials.
It was the roughest neighbourhood in Manhatten.
Along certain sections of the road in the Lower East side, each building was occupied by either a gambling den, whorehouse or bar. Sometimes they combined to meet the needs of a man who had many vices to fulfill at the same time.
It was also a place of opportunity for a young man with a sharp brain and a willingness to use his fists . Such a man is the key figure in The Bowery Slugger; Alex Cohen, a Jewish immigrant boy who muscles his way into the gangs and become the notorious “Slugger”.
Alex is one of thousands of European immigrants drawn to New York “not speaking the language but hoping, beyond hope, this land of opportunity would deliver plenty to them.” The Cohens had been driven from their small wooden home in the Ukraine because of religious persecution by the Russians.
The promised land they expect to find in New York doesn’t deliver. The Cohens end up in small, run down apartment in a tall tenement building in The Bowery. Alex’s father fails to find work as a tailor so it’s down to their son to help them pay for food and accommodation.
He’s a resourceful boy who in the Ukraine had already learned “how to read people and to persuade them to bend to his will.” It’s fortunate that on his first night in the city he finds a way into a trickster operation. From there he progresses to the loan shark ‘business’ and then extortion, becoming a heavy man for one of the big gangs.
The Bowery Slugger traces his life over the course of three years. It’s an episodic novel full of incidents in which Alex becomes a force to be reckoned with in the neighbourhood. He’s never far from violence. Anyone who displeases him is liable to get their nose smashed, their jaw broken or their neck slashed.
This kind of narrative could easily become very tedious especially since I’m not a fan of violence. But Leopold Borstinski’s novel has two significant redeeming features that kept me reading.
First up was the detail of life in this area of New York in the first decade of the twentieth century. You really get the sense of how difficult it was for immigrants to find a footing in the city.
There’s a suggestion right at the beginning of the book of an anti Jewish feeling with landlords unwilling to rent to those families. Naturally the Cohens feel more comfortable amid people of their own kind, particularly since they have little command of English. The Bowery Slugger is full of Yiddish expressions which I thought brought a level of authenticity to the dialogue.
The other element of The Bowery Slugger that I enjoyed was the character of Alex. What Borstinski gives us is a young man with a dilemma. He needs to keep in with the gang leaders to support his family but as the violence escalates he gets increasingly worried about what he is getting into. He also finds himself in love with the young girl who lives in the same apartment block. But she won’t marry him unless he gives up his gangster life. It’s the conflict between these different aspects of his life that make the book interesting but I think it could have been developed even further.
Even though Alex was a thoroughly nasty character, I was invested enough in him to what to know how this conflict would be resolved. We don’t get to find out because, right at the end, Borstinski engineers a plot development that leaves Alex’s future open for the next book in the series. I won’t spoil the fun by giving away the details. I’ll say only that Alex might think this is a way out of his problems but actually he is about to get himself involved in a whole new heap of trouble.
Crime noir is outside my normal reading fare but The Bowery Slugger was an engaging blend of dynamic action and period detail topped off with a morally questionable character.
The Bowery Slugger: Fast Facts
The Bowery Slugger is the first book in a series featuring the Jewish gangster, Alex Cohen. It was published in paperback and e-book format by Sobriety Press on 10th November 2019.
Leopold Borstinski turned to writing after a varied career in financial journalism, business management and teaching.
He is drawn to stories about the morally questionable and to characters who are morally suspect.
His previous work includes the Lagotti Family series, six crime noir novels set in 1960s Baltimore.