This was a fascinating read. Set in New York, back in the early thirties, the story tells of three brothers, close in age but not in nature. Dickie, Walt and Adlai have been raised by a father who may have been there for them physically, providing employment and a home above the butcher shop, but he definitely wasn’t there emotionally.
The viewpoint shifts between the three brothers.
The lack of a mother’s love for the majority of their lives has affected them in different ways. One reviewer likened the story to King Lear. While the number of siblings was the same, I didn’t see the same connection. Lear was the central character in that drama while Pat, the father in this one, wanders around on the periphery, his absence being more important than his presence.
All the brothers had their birthdays around the same time, in the middle of summer. So the days which marked their passage into another year of maturity came amidst stifling temperatures that not only sapped their energy but added to their impatience and frustration. There were some passages of truly lyrical prose that brought this home:
There was a sudden, violent, onslaught of brutal and deadening heat. It was after midnight, and the city was a furnace of unrest, escalating anger, petty arguments broiling into bloody fist fights, small squatty fires igniting in dry bristling edges of dark spots near the river. Children were awake, somewhat dazzled by the strangeness of it all. Hydrants, untapped, sprayed ferociously, and mutts dashed through over and over. The heat wave, they said, would only get worse.
The garage door in the back of the butcher shop was open, but no breeze blew. Things were still as if an ancient drought had come to stay.
A surge. A wailing from the insects in the country, deep country, black night, loose, slow airless country. The brute heat forgotten due to the scream of unseen and miniscule things, they overwhelming everything with their unifying power, their music.
The window was open, and there was no screen. Anything could crawl in. The black at the window was pure and silky, but the long, constant song of the bugs made it clear things were out there in the night.
But every now and then this heat would break.
There was a snap of light and a bold crash of thunder, then a hungry wind blew in the open window at the two of them as the storm revived and grew in severity. There was crude shouting from the street, and dark animal screaming, hounds and indefinable creatures, voices drenched in the new, mad rush of storm and a sudden clatter of pounding hail.
Like this heat, the tension boils along in the story as the brothers become embroiled in gang warfare. This was around the time of prohibition, when areas of a city were under the control of thugs who dressed in fancy suits and carried big guns.
Dickie, the eldest, sees joining one of these gangs as a way up in the world and he is prepared to do whatever it takes to get there, dragging along his brothers whether they want to be involved or not.
Walt, the middle brother is physically larger than the other two, who are little over five foot. He dreams of becoming a doctor to escape life in his father’s butcher shop where they all work. But this background and Dickie’s actions, bring about a different set of problems when it comes to the girl he loves and wants to marry.
Then there is Adlai, affectionally known as Rat because of his small stature. When the book begins, he is not yet sixteen. He is different again, but his difference stems from his desires.
The book beautifully captures the differences from today’s society. Despite the fact most of the protagonists are still in their teens, they are seen as men. They live in the world of gangs, gyms, professional boxing, cock fights and prejudices that are thankfully not as prevalent today.
This was an era where being a prostitute or having loose morals was worse than being a murderer.
When having sex with a negress was what you did when the white virgins wouldn’t put out, but marrying one was illegal.
It was even worse if you were discovered to be a homosexual.
New York in the thirties was also in the midst of an economic depression. It was a melting pot of immigrants, each intolerant of the other. The boys great grandfather would today be considered one of the “boat people” as he boarded a “coffin ship to freedom to escape famine”
Being Irish carried its own set of racial characteristics. The love of whiskey, the seemingly boundless ability to feel guilty for real and imagined sin. Wallowing in introspection and self pity. The sins of the fathers being passed on to their sons.
Years passed, and I became more and more a drunkard. My own stink, the reek of cowardice, that fear mixed with my shame grew month after month, year after year, working the whore house, stuffing away money, drinking late into the night, losing my soul.
But despite this grief and shame, blood is integral to the story. Both literal and metaphorical. In the end it is death that finally brings the sons and their father together in a more literal sense.
Along the way they hurt each other, help each other, but throughout, they remain loyal even if a part of them wonders why. They share a bedroom and each has a dream or more accurately a recurring nightmare that terrifies them but bonds them at the same time.
There are other themes running throughout. Size is one. The gentle giants and the aggressive runts. Where the line between bravery and stupidity is easily crossed. Where earning respect can come from being tough and able to withstand pain.
If you’re looking for a nice fluffy romance, this is not it. But if you want a book that whisks you away to another era, where each of the brothers finds a very different kind of love, give this a try. 4 stars.
Review from A.B. She is someone who likes reading stories reflecting reality. She has lived long enough to see many changes first hand and knows these stories need to be written.
About the Book
Bound by blood but separated by secrets, brothers—Dickie, Walt and Adlai—run a butcher shop for their alcoholic father, whose broken spirit has isolated him from the world. When Dickie makes a rash decision, involving an organized crime family, a chain of events ensues that changes the brothers’ lives and forces them to come together— at first, with a sense of camaraderie, but ultimately, with something much fiercer, more brutal. The Butcher’s Sons is a gritty, intimate portrait of three young Irish-American brothers whose lives irrevocably change during a heat wave in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen, circa 1930.
About the Author
Scott Alexander Hess earned his MFA in creative writing from The New School. He blogs for The Huffington Post, and his writing has appeared in Genre Magazine, The Fix, and elsewhere. Hess co-wrote “Tom in America,” an award-winning short film starring Sally Kirkland and Burt Young. The Butcher’s Sons is his third novel. Originally from St. Louis, Missouri, Hess now lives in Manhattan, New York
Learn more at http://www.scottalexanderhess.com and follow Scott Alexander Hess on Twitter @ScottAlexHess.