The Butcher’s Sons, Scott Alexander Hess
Publisher: Lethe Press
Tags: Historical, Family, Crime, Violence, Het & Gay Relationships
Length: 247 pages
Reviewer: Kazza K
This darkly lyrical and violent family saga set in a butcher shop in New York circa 1930 tells the story about three Irish brothers, each struggling to find their role–to define their lives and express their dreams–amid the poverty of a broken home, alcoholic father, and the violent society of Hell’s Kitchen. Dickie is guided by an almost animal desire to get what he wants and, as a fighter, is fearless in his pursuit of being respected by mobsters. Walt, the middle brother, romances a woman whose educated father sees the lad as gutter trash. Then there is frail Adlai, who finds himself on the most perilous path, an illicit affair with his oldest brother’s best friend. The Butcher’s Boys is an engaging read about desperate young men determined to do whatever they can to find something gilded amid the grime of old New York.
The Butcher’s Sons is about three Irish-American brothers living in Hell’s Kitchen in the 1930s and working the family butcher shop. The story starts just before Adlai’s – the youngest son’s – sixteenth birthday and finishes not long after. All the sons are in their teens and roughly a year apart. Their mother left their father and the boys when they were all young. She had her children, performed her wifely marital task, and left. They’re all impacted by the loss of a maternal figure in their lives. Dickie remembers Angie the most, Adlai remembers her the least. Pat, their father, fought and lived through WWI, which took a toll, as did his wife leaving him. Pat is in the book in bits and pieces, much like he is with his boy’s lives, much like his state of mind, but I understood him. I understood his Irish roots, his superstitions, his acceptance of his sons’ fates. His lucid moments and his moments of emotional vacancy. His pivotal moments.
Dickie, the oldest, is rough, tough and violent. Running a small-time protection racket isn’t enough and he forms his Irish gang of four, The Butchers. He wants power. He wants in on the Italian’s territory and their rackets – which are now encroaching on Irish territory. With a turf war looming between the Coriglianos and the Lucianos he sees his chance. The Italians have the money, nice offices, women on their arms, a strong outward sense of family, and, most of all, respect through fear. All the things Dickie equates with success, they have and he covets. Dickie lands on their radar by shooting one of the Lucianos and later attacking one of Frankie Corigliano’s men. Dickie is punished in retaliation for his efforts but pain is nothing to Dickie if there’s money and respect to be gained. Likewise, if there’s benefits to be had, the Italians are quick to think business.
“I know a lot of violent men. Goons that will cut your insides out. Mean, evil men. But I’ve never seen anyone so calm as you,” Frankie said. “There’s a quality to you that I need.” Frankie paused, as if he were searching for a radiant, saving thought. And Dickie thought, What is he doing with me?
Frankie stood and stretched, then smiled. “That’s what I can use,” he said. “That’s why you and your brothers aren’t dead. You’re gonna work for me.”
So a shaky alliance is forged. It’s built heavily on a power imbalance between the Coriglianos and the Irish brothers, but Dickie doesn’t care. He wants what he can take from the Italians.
While Dickie was originally trying to work a deal with Dewy, the leader of a Harlem gang, he meets a woman in her thirties, a “negress,” Eva. Eva is beautiful, exotic, isn’t scared of him, is tight-lipped, and likes being seen with notorious men, and Dickie certainly has a reputation. She’s strong and street smart and they’re a good match. Although a relationship between someone white and black isn’t allowed, it adds to the danger and appeal for Dickie.
“Word gets around,” she said in a whisper. “They call you the butcher. A man can become known fast. I like men who are known.”
He felt his way closer onto her, and he sighed then made a ragged little cry, letting the pleasure seep all over. “You sure you’re not afraid?” he said, dizzy and losing some part of himself. He went at her harder, and she gripped him, and they swam in the heat on that sticky floor, and she moaned a little which made him even crazier….
Walt, the middle brother, also has goals and dreams to get out of the butcher shop and Hell’s Kitchen. He wants to study on a full scholarship to become a doctor. He’s also in love with, besotted by, a beautiful Argentinian girl, Adriana.
At seventeen, he was what some women called gangly. He had a pleasant face, warm, wide, brown eyes. He had been in love for over three months with her, with Adriana, and it had done little to alter his life plan. It fortified him to think he found the love of his life, that that part was done, that she would share the dream with him.
Adriana has beauty, poise, grace and class. She’s from a wealthy family and the daughter of a psychiatrist. The doctor knows about Walt’s brother Dickie and his protection racket, his thuggery. He won’t allow his daughter to be with Walt. It’s not just because of Dickie, not just because they’re from a different class and culture. It’s more than that. He’s bitterly unhappy his wife left him, he is cruel in regards to love, cruel to his daughter. Cruel to Walt.
Walt looked toward Adriana, who at some point had begun to cry. “I’m sorry Walt. Please go,” she said softly. He waited for her eyes to rise, to see him there, to show that glimmer of strength, the woman he knew she was. He wanted to wrench her from the deadening table, the suffocating and dark room’s vileness
However, bitterness and cruelty are like a cancer and there are ramifications. My heart bled for Walt, the biggest of the brothers, the one with dark hair instead of blonde. The one who wanted to escape Dickie and his dreams and schemes the most.
Adlai is the youngest of the brothers. At fifteen/sixteen his libido and sexual self-awareness are heightened and he takes a couple of potentially dangerous ventures out of area to, perhaps, find men who are like-minded.
The man leaned in and whispered in Adlai’s ear, as if the message could be picked up and thrashed around by someone near, and turned back at them. He told Adlai where to go, where boys like him went, the only sort of place he could go at his age.
Luckily for him, Dickie has his friend, his fellow gang member, Big Ed following Adlai. Adlai has been wandering off at night and Dickie likes to know what his family is up to. He also likes to punish those who aren’t doing what he thinks is right. He might have the blood that binds, but he’s not above hurting Adlai, or Rat as he calls him. Dickie also wants Big Ed to teach Adlai how to box. Ed was a boxer and Dickie wants him to help toughen his youngest and weakest brother up. Adlai thinks more of what goes on at the local beauty shop than boxing, is small at around five foot, pretty, and more feminine in looks and demeanour. Nineteen year old Ed knows that boxing is definitely not for Adlai. What Ed also knows is that he wants Adlai. Ed’s feelings are more than reciprocated by Adlai who has watched him as well.
Big Ed was only four years older than Adlai, but his size and strength made them seem worlds apart. The fact fascinated Adlai.
Big Ed’s meaty shoulders raised, and the swamp of his thick, black hair the ladies at Gem’s beauty shop gossiped about swayed strangely, almost elegantly, in that hot, raw, boxing gym that knew only ugly fists and harshness.
While Dickie and Walt have their relationships, Adlai now has his own too. Only his is one that cannot be talked about, cannot be shown. The little things that Ed and Adlai do are very sweet and mostly careful. But they are edgy about being caught and that edginess is palpable. However, there is a thrill in the secrecy. Something that is Adlai’s – to a point. All the butcher’s sons find complex love. Interestingly, Adlai’s is the least complicated in terms of the two people in it. Only the fact that same-sex relationships are illegal, and if Dickie finds out there will be blood make it complex.
The book is hard to categorise in a genre. I don’t know that I can label it gay fiction because Adlai is only one part of an ensemble. All three brothers are different in not only temperament and desires, but two are heterosexual, one isn’t. They each have a very distinct voice, whether that be Dickie’s absolute drive to be a successful criminal, his violence, his telling of a recurring and building dream that seems to be his curse, or his relationship with the older, beautiful, and dark, Eva.
There’s Walt’s frustrations at the havoc Dickie creates and anguish over his relationship with a woman from a different class and culture. That his best laid plans seem increasingly unobtainable. How can he make his relationship work with Adriana’s father thwarting everything? And his ever-present subconscious fear about the women you love leaving. Seemingly having to put all dreams and goals on hold for family.
Then there’s Adlai’s sexual awakening. What it’s like to live in a house where you’re the youngest, the runt, feeling like you’re a shadow and easily abused because Dickie can. Not knowing much about your mother, even your father but seeing more to him than the others do. Being privy to family history no one else is. Growing up fast. Falling in love with a man, and not just any man, your oldest brother’s good friend. Having to hide that love because of the consequences but also revelling in something that is yours.
What the butcher’s sons do have in common is a deep family bond and because, in theory, family should have each other’s backs when push comes to shove, that’s what they do. It certainly doesn’t make it perfect. It doesn’t make it right, it isn’t particularly functional, but the author wrote it beautifully – complete with a twist here and there. One of my favourite parts of this book was a (gloriously written) journal that Adlai’s great grandfather – Cahal – wrote and Adlai’s reading of the journal. The significance of that to the whole story.
Right from the prologue, The Butcher’s Sons grabbed my heart, put it in a vice, and didn’t let go. Even now, several days after I’ve finished reading, the characters stay with me because the they are so emotionally vivid, wonderful, and real. The narrative is lyrical and gritty all at once, allowing the period and the people desperately – sometimes violently – vying for their part in America to come alive. The Irish lilt was there on page – not easy to do. The Italian mob swagger and dangerous demeanour were evident. The quality of writing paints a picture as clearly as any artist could dare dream, allowing the reader to be thoroughly transported in time. You’re able to feel the oppressive New York heat, the sweat, the grind, the violence, the desperation, the beginnings of something new, the resignation of life’s path in 1930’s Hell’s Kitchen. I felt like I was outside the butcher’s shop watching the three Irish brothers, as well as Big Ed and Pat, as they dealt with the hand given them. The other integral characters who weaved throughout the narrative and the boy’s individual story’s are not wallflowers either, all of which makes The Butcher’s Sons a riveting, powerful piece of literature. 5 Stars!
E-book supplied by the publisher in return for an honest review