Russell is also a member of the Bhotke Young Men’s Society, a meeting of which is interrupted by the arrival of Shushan Cats, a notorious gangster and larger-than-life character known to the media as ‘Shoeshine Cats’ and ‘Kid Yid’. The Bhotke Young Men’s Society owns a plot of real estate in the Queens cemetery, and Shushan, whose mother has just died, wishes to join the society so as to avail of a grave for his beloved mother. Russell, as secretary for the society, is given the job of organising the funeral.
From there, of course, it’s but a short hop, skip and jump before Russell is running a mob empire and fending off FBI investigations into the assassination of JFK.
First that mob empire: Shushan ‘Shoeshine’ Cats is not Italian, but Jewish, and this is crucially important to the plot and the way the story is told. Kestin frequently refers back to the Holocaust, for example, which has taken place barely two decades before in terms of the novel’s setting:
Of the entire village of Bhotke [in Poland], only one man had survived the initial slaughter in 1939 when an SS battalion had entered the village … 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?The novel is on the one had a mildly absurd and very funny crime novel. Kestin revels in the tropes of the crime novel, and virtually every chapter ends on a cliff-hanger, each one more ridiculous than the last. There are times when the tough-guy patter and dialogue is so hard-boiled as to recall the best of Raymond Chandler, although Kestin does invest his style with directness that can be as disconcerting as it is hilarious: “I thought: Let’s take this bullshit one turd at a time.” (pg 127)
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 … everything done to these had been absolutely legal, sanctioned by legitimate courts whose judges sat in black robes and vetted each and every decree as binding, fair, in the public interest, 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. (pg 219)
For the most part, however, style and tone is very much tongue-in-cheek; while the historical detail is neatly detailed, and the story is very much rooted in reality, the central premise - that a bookish-loving student might find himself gifted a gangster’s criminal empire - is ludicrous.
It’s important, I think, to view that unlikely promotion in context, however; the ludicrous nature of it is very deliberate. How likely would it have been fifty years previously, for example, that a single nation would make it its mission to wipe out the entire Jewish race? How likely was it, on November 20th, 1963, that President John Kennedy would be assassinated on a drive through Dallas, Texas? Could anyone have predicted, ten years previously, that hawks in Moscow and Washington would have lined up enough nuclear warheads to eradicate humanity rather than back down on a matter of principle?
The early 1960s was a time when the absurd seemed to rule, Kestin reminds us, and the central thrust of his story, as Russell effortlessly replaces Shushan as a mobster, is no more or less absurd than any of history’s more famous lunacies.
Russell, the first-person narrator, is an immensely likeable character. An honours student in English literature, he is smart, funny, very self-aware and self-deprecating - not only about himself, but his culture and heritage:
While a young and more affluent generation of native-born Jews felt as American as baseball, Frank Sinatra and Chinese food, the foreign-born, most of whom had escaped the Nazi ovens through sheer luck, considered themselves marginal. For their sons the line between newly American and American never existed … but for the so-called greenhorns American was not a noun but a verb: you had to work at it. Even the longtime recording secretary, whose Yiddish was not only perfect but perfectly legible, voted himself out of the job in a flurry of nativism that would have given pause to the Ku Klux Klan. (pg 2)This kind of bright, breezy tone, replete with off-colour humour and/or cultural insight, characterises the tone of the novel. Russell’s voice, and his way of seeing the world, which is simultaneously cynical and refreshing, becomes very quickly addictive. Not only is he opening up a world that is something of a novelty to us - even in 1963, the notion of Jewish mobsters was growing archaic - he is doing so in some style, not least because Russell is himself a student of English literature who at his happiest, linguistically speaking, when taking huge liberties with the language.
It’s also true that, in terms of Russell’s development, Kestin has his cake and eats it too. On one level, Russell’s slightly surreal adventures in New York’s gangland are a spoof on young male fantasies of power, money and (especially) sex; by the same token, Kestin describes Russell’s new-found wealth and power with palpable glee. The result is a character with a real spring in his step, a young, Jewish Tony Soprano revelling in an Alice in Wonderland experience as he steps through the looking-glass and begins to appreciate the extent to which his new world has no limits - or at least, that the limits which apply to normal, law-abiding citizens simply don’t apply to Shushan Cats, Russell Newhouse and their ilk.
Shushan Cats, meanwhile, is one of the most compelling literary creations of recent years. A self-made and self-educated man, Shushan is on the face of it a typical mobster, a hard man who rules with a fist of iron.
Kestin gives Cats a number of unexpected dimensions, however. The first is his Jewish heritage, which Kestin links very strongly to the recent Holocaust and to Cats’ ability to survive and thrive in adverse circumstances. Cats is not a conservative or traditional Jew; indeed, this is why he first embraces Russell Newhouse, and brings him into the fold, as he needs the young man to properly organise his mother’s funeral. Nonetheless, Cats observes shiva in the traditional manner, and is appropriately respectful of his ancestors, family and otherwise.
Another unexpected aspect is the depth and breadth of Cats’ education. An autodidact with a voracious appetite for books, Cats is happy to give the impression of being an ignorant, unlearned gangster, in part because his modus operandi depends on wrong-footing those who underestimate him. At one point, accused of coasting through his university education, and thus wasting it, Russell announces that he could quite easily write a term paper on HUCKLEBERRY FINN without applying himself too seriously to reading it:
“You could write a paper now?” Shushan said. “On Huckleberry Finn?”Of course, there is nothing that is even remotely realistic about Shushan Cats. A benign mobster who is inordinately generous, who is beloved and respected throughout the city, and by cops and criminals alike, he is a fantasy father-figure to the orphaned Russell, who craves not only fatherly affection, but direction in his life, a moral weather-vane to help him make sense of the topsy-turvy times in which he lives. That it’s a gangster who provides this sense of direction and self-worth is just one more of the many delicious ironies that underpin this novel.
“Could you write it on the seventeen fucking accents and dialects in it, or the place of theatre, or Nigger Jim’s options, or the resolution of sequence, like when …” Shushan stopped. “What’d I do? Russy, shut your mouth a fly will come in.”
Finally I had to speak. “What is it with you, Shushan? Are you a gangster or what? Every time I look up there’s another literary reference fired off, another allusion … Del, an hour ago this guy was quoting La Rochefoucauld to a couple of gumshoes --”
“The elder or the son?”
“Père,” Shushan said. “To my mind, the son was nothing.”
The tone, meanwhile, is a beautifully judged affair. Shushan Cats’ reference to the ‘seventeen fucking accents and dialects’ in Huckleberry Finn is no accident; SHOESHINE CATS is a symphony of accents and dialects that reflects the various immigrant groups’ origins, and reminds us of the extent to which New York was and is a melting pot. But Hesh Kestin isn’t satisfied with that: he strains a variety of accents and dialects through the filter of the classic hard-boiled novel, the dialogue whip-smart and crackling with Chandleresque humour.
As the Huckleberry Finn reference above suggests, it’s also a novel chock-a-block with literary allusions that run the gamut from ALICE IN WONDERLAND to HEART OF DARKNESS. But Kestin isn’t a cultural snob; in Russell’s world, Dodgers’ pitcher Sandy Koufax is as relevant, and important, as Joseph Conrad or Mark Twain.
For all of its absurdities and off-kilter sense of humour, however, the novel is very much rooted to its time and place by the event that looms in the background of the story from the very beginning, that of the assassination of John F Kennedy in Dallas. That event doesn’t fully escape the gravitational pull of the novel’s absurd tone - Shushan Cats is a long-time friend of Jack Ruby; at one point, Cats, a former crack marksman with the Marines, is considered a suspect for the assassination - but there is a pervasive sense that the killing of JFK, for all the man’s personal faults (to which Shushan testifies at every opportunity), marks something of a watershed in modern American history; that America took a turn for the worse on that fateful date in November 1963.
Ultimately, and for all of his idiosyncrasies and fantastical attributes, Shushan Cats excels at realpolitik. Less than two decades after the Holocaust, and with the reader aware that the assassination of JFK is only a matter of days away, the world is the way it is; significantly less than idyllic, certainly, and yet you have no choice but to deal with it on its own terms:
“So you’re some kind of benevolent despot,” I said, by now wondering if I did indeed have balls of stainless steel. “You think that’s American?”Everything a good novel should be and more, THE IRON WILL OF SHOESHINE CATS is by turns hilarious, brutal, irreverent, thought-provoking, vexing and terrific fun. - Declan Burke
“Fuck that,” Shushan said. “You’re going to learn you can’t do everything the right way, because of all the people who are ready to do it the wrong way. You’re just a kid, your nose is in books, and maybe you know a lot, but what you don’t know is that in the real world somebody has to make a decision every minute. Okay, sometimes you get the wrong somebody, and sometimes he doesn’t have the luxury of being democratically elected, but somebody has to step up.” (pg 90)