First: Get a job at a newspaper. Hurry. They're going fast.
Second: Position your desk near the desk of your newspaper's books editor (if your newspaper still has a books editor).
Because you are sitting nearby, he will occasionally hand you a book, hoping you'll read it and write something about it. The number of books he hands you—and the pleading look in his eyes—will grow more acute during times of budget contraction when your newspaper can't afford freelancers. This will become increasingly common as newspapers across the country acclimate to living in a state of permanent emergency.
Cheerfully accept any book handed to you by your books editor, even though the chances that you'll finish it—let alone enjoy it—are low, provoking feelings of guilt and shame by simply allowing the book to pass from his hands into yours.
Because you are a person of goodwill and want to believe that each book he hands you might finally breach your fortress of indifference and/or disappointment, read each first sentence with care and hope. Read the second sentence with greater or lesser care and hope, depending on how you liked the first one. Thumb through the book until you feel the familiar sag of boredom—or the familiar tickle of guilt because you're not writing something for your newspaper's blog—and drop it onto the growing stacks on, under, and around your desk.
(Recently added to these piles: Escape from Bellevue: A Memoir of Rock 'n' Roll, Recovery, and Redemption; El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City; Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play. Remind yourself to go through those stacks of colon-ized titles and find ones you might be able to sell for a little cash at the secondhand bookshop around the corner so you can afford a martini at the ritual Friday-afternoon cocktail hour with your coworkers.)
Third: After a few years of this routine, cheerfully accept the 352nd book handed to you by your books editor in the manner described above. This one is called The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats. Its cover is a black-and-white photograph: a young, smirking man, cigarette in the corner of his mouth, chin uplifted in a slightly smug, heavy-lidded, tough-guy stare, but with a flinching look in the eyes, the kind of look unique to men who aren't tough but want to look tough. (Know this because you've practiced looking tough in the mirror.)
Fourth: Feel mild amusement about the macho posturing in the author's brief biography: "An honors graduate of the Brooklyn streets, where he grew up across from the headquarters of Murder, Inc. [the Jewish hit-man syndicate of the '20s and '30s], Hesh Kestin reported on war and civil mayhem in the Mideast, Europe, and Africa..." Barely, almost subconsciously, register the resemblance between the cocky expression of the young man on the cover and the cocky-tempered-with-age expression of the author.
Fifth: Because you are a person of goodwill, read the first sentence of The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats with care and hope: "The notorious gangster Shushan Cats walked into my life through the doors of the Bhotke Young Men's Society—in 1963 the only truly young man in the group was me—where I had become recording secretary the month before by a vote of 57 to 56 with three abstentions after it had been decided to switch the group's official language to English."
Though it seems a little long for a first sentence (and is perhaps missing a comma after "1963"), admire all the tensions the author (flip to the author bio again—right, his name is Hesh Kestin) packed into those 62 words: a gangster versus an old Jewish men's society; the old Jewish men versus the young Jewish narrator; the vote of 57 to 56 and its implications of an internecine Bhotke Young Men's Society struggle; the switch from whatever language (Hebrew? Yiddish?) to English and its implications of old immigrant men, staggering under the pressure of American assimilation, debating whether to use their childhood language or the language of their children. (Imagine that constant, enveloping pressure: It must be like trying to walk along the bottom of the ocean while watching your children swimming madly toward the sparkling surface, throwing off the ballast of the old language and the old religion, becoming giddy and sick with the bends.)
Feel the momentum of those tensions propelling you from the first sentence into the second: "In one sense this was foolish, because while most of the members were fluent in Yiddish, Hebrew, Aramaic, Russian and Polish..."
Mildly disapprove of the refusal to deploy an Oxford comma—why do people do that? The Oxford comma is a small but extraordinarily useful tool that allows a writer greater clarity and grammatical flexibility. Throwing it out of your punctuation toolbox is like throwing out one of your Allen wrenches. You might never need it, but why take the chance? And it can prevent marvelously embarrassing train wrecks like this famous description, in the Times, of a 1998 documentary by Peter Ustinov: "Highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector."
Anyway. Back to the sentence:
"...in English there were few who did not sound like the character on the Jack Benny Show—when television was still mainly black-and-white—called Mr. Kitzel, whose voice, inflection and grammar [note the missing Oxford comma] made the average shopkeeper on Sutter Avenue, [wonder if this comma is perhaps unnecessary] in Brownsville, the section of Brooklyn where I grew up, sound like Lawrence Olivier chatting airily with Vivien Leigh."
Sixth: Realize that all this concern about commas is clouding the sun—you like this book. Only two sentences in, it has more comedy, character, and tension than all those other books and their colon-ized titles stacked on, under, and around your desk.
Eighth: Leave the office and take the book to your favorite secluded stoop, the entrance to an abandoned storefront four blocks away. That stoop once served as a plinth for a human turd (understandable: For a place to shit in public, it's relatively private). Months afterward, a little of that turd's powdery residue is still visible on the faded tiles—but you return to sit there because it gets nice afternoon sun.
Read the first chapter while sitting on the stoop—an introduction to the meek dentists and grocers of the Bhotke Young Men's Society and the gangster Shushan "Shoeshine" Cats: "This type, known in Yiddish as a shtarker, a hard-guy, had nothing to defend, not even his life. If you cut off his fists he would go after you with the stumps of his arms; cut off his legs and he would wriggle like a snake and bite into your femoral artery until you died and he drowned in the blood. Even the Italian gangsters stayed away... These were nothing-to-lose Jews who had fought to the death in the Warsaw Ghetto, the pimps who had run the white-slave trade in Buenos Aires, the Hebrew avengers who had strung up five British soldiers for every Jewish rebel hung in Palestine."
Ninth: Over the next few days, read The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats in cafes, in bed, in the green upholstered chair where you drink your coffee in the morning. Admire Kestin's obviously nostalgic affection for his narrator—a bookish lothario in a tough New York neighborhood—and the class-act titular hero, a decorated ex-marine who, through negotiation and intimidation, holds a tenuous peace between the ethnic gangs of New York: the Chinese, the Italians, the African Americans. Shoeshine Cats also has a foxy psychotherapist for a sister and impresses the college-kid narrator by quoting Shakespeare and La Rochefoucauld (en français!). More critically, he infuses the Jewish neighborhoods of New York City, neighborhoods full of Nazi-era refugees, with vicarious pride.
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, 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.
Tenth: Tear up a little as those meek members of the Bhotke Young Men's Society are drafted as unlikely foot soldiers in a gangland standoff, assembling across the street from a mafiosi stronghold while singing an anthem from the Warsaw Uprising.
Eleventh: Consider the moral problems with romanticizing a New York gangster because he represents the spirit of the Warsaw Uprising. But also consider that it doesn't matter: The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats is an unexpected pleasure, a light novel (a little zingy with its cliff-hanger sentences and a little pulpy with its sex scenes) by a smart writer. How often does your books editor hand you one of those?
Twelfth: Conduct an e-mail correspondence with the author, Hesh Kestin. Learn that "the punk on the cover: Me at twenty—the kind of guy who starts a fight in a bar and leaves in the middle." Enjoy Kestin's stories about growing up among gangsters (though none so high-class as Shoeshine):
Crime and criminal life were part of the neighborhood, though it was surprisingly friendly, genial even, most likely because this was a poor part of town. Criminals grew up in East New York-Brownsville but they practiced elsewhere: the pickings were better...
As kids we wanted to start a Little League team, so we went to the corner bar to seek sponsorship. The management was happy to underwrite us. But when our parents heard about this, they nixed it. As my father so succinctly put it: "What happens if you lose?"
Thirteenth: Find The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats unexpectedly difficult to write about. You have enjoyed it and have been charmed by its author, but "I enjoyed it and was charmed by its author" is not enough to sustain a book review. Fidget over the review for a week or two, forcing your increasingly exasperated books editor to run other pieces in his section.
Fourteenth: Finding yourself incapable of writing a review but desirous to stump for the rare book you've enjoyed, write a 15-point diary entry instead.
Fifteenth: Feel a little badly about sending the books editor of your newspaper a diary entry instead of a review.
Send it anyway.