The late Thomas Boyle was a Pennsylvania kid who spent part of his childhood in Brooklyn. (That makes him an Honorary Brooklyn Boy in my opinion.) He graduated from Cornell, earned his doctorate at NYU and taught at Brooklyn College for many years. Some book review sites confuse him with the more famous T.C. Boyle the author of many brilliant novels including The Road to Wellville – set in a 19th century health-spa and Drop City – set in an Alaskan hippie commune.
Our Thomas Boyle’s last book (published in 1990 in the midst of his crime trilogy) was Black Swine in the Sewers of Hampstead – a study of Victorian crime fiction. It sounds like the Sherlock Holmes mystery Conan Doyle forgot to write! I’ve added it to my “must read” list.
Any fan of gumshoe fiction will enjoy Boyle’s modern yet faithful reworking of the much-loved archetypes and plot devices of that often hackneyed genre.
Anyone who knows the geography of Brooklyn will get an extra kick out of Boyle’s locales. His hard-boiled tales follow Detective Frank DeSales as he chases bad guys down hidden alleys in Red Hook, across garbage strewn vacant lots in Williamsburgh and even onto the hallowed ground of Green-Wood Cemetery.
If you like Lawrence Block’s ex-cop now “private dick” Matt Scudder, you’ll feel right at home with Thomas Boyle’s active duty detective Frank DeSales. They are brothers from another mother.
I can’t find any movies or TV shows based on this trilogy which is a shame and surprising. For decades now, “All things Brooklyn” have been all the rage. Go know!
Any list of famous writers from Brooklyn would fill a decent sized phone book. And any list of books set in Brooklyn would be almost as large. I’ve read plenty of both but there are many more I’ve missed. So, the posts I’ll be making about Brooklyn books will be far from a definitive list. Think of them as tips from your friendly Brooklyn librarian.
It would be remiss of me not to begin with the very first “Brooklyn” book I ever read. (Hell, it was the very first book I ever read cover-to-cover!) And, I’ve reread it many times since – most recently last Tuesday. In fact, it’s the overdue book mentioned above – overdue for over 60 years! If you haven’t read it then all I can say is, “I pity you!”
“Psssst, hey kid, ya wanna read a really doity book?”
As you drive into Brooklyn across the Brooklyn Bridge a large sign looms up at you. It screams, “Last Exit to Brooklyn.” If a driver doesn’t take that exit they are taken onto the Gowanus Expressway and thence over the neighborhood of Sunset Park where the spectacularly downbeat novel Last Exit to Brooklyn is set. In the 1950s, the period of the novel, that sign should have screamed, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”
In the 50s, the waterfront of Sunset Park was a land of perpetual night – a slum rotting in fetid shadow beneath the elevated Gowanus Expressway. The Mafia had killed the docks, Robert Moses had killed Sunset Park by cutting it in two with his hideous highway and the Dodgers had killed Brooklyn by moving to L.A.
Hubert Selby Jr. knew this coz he was a Brooklyn boy born right next door to Sunset Park in Bay Ridge.
Selby’s book consists of inter-locking tales of losers, junkies, sadists, pimps, hookers and trannies who fight for scraps in a nightmare world of gangs and gang-bangs.
I was raised in the 1950s just a few blocks away from this world. I even swam in the public pool there. But, I knew better than to venture into the Terra Incognita below the highway. Many years later, I met a Yorkshireman who had lived in a sleaze-bag hotel in Sunset Park during WW2. He was outfitting ships to British standards that had been built in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He told me that the whole area was full of crap games, gyp-joints and whorehouses all making a fortune from the servicemen and dock workers.
In the 1980s, I would spend pointless, penniless weekends meandering around Brooklyn by bike. I was drawn to the derelict and rotting factories of Industry City that lined the waterfront in Sunset Park. I thought, “Damn, this would make a great film set.” And, that’s exactly where, a few years later, much of the movie of Last Exit to Brooklyn was filmed.
That film is good but doesn’t capture the daring style and outrageous vitality of Selby’s prose. Plus, by 1989, much of the shock value of his book’s subject matter had been lost. But, when it was first published in 1964, Last Exit to Brooklyn was an outrage and banned in several countries. I haven’t been impressed by Selby’s other work but anyone interested in the lower depths of Brooklyn life and the heights of “outsider” American literature should read Last Exit to Brooklyn.
In 1965, I read it as a 15-year-old while working as a messenger in Times Square. The guy who sold it to me could have been arrested. I made sure that its instantly recognizable cover was always visible sticking out of my back pocket as I made deliveries. And, I made sure that same cover was visible as I read Last Exit to Brooklyn on the subway. I didn’t live in a artist’s garret in Greenwich Village but it was fun to pretend that I did.
Thanks for visiting my blog. It is a sampler of my murder-memoir Boy Outa Brooklyn. The best way to enjoy it is to start at the first post and read chronologically. I hope you’ll find it both hilarious and horrifying.
I will also be posting about the best books, movies and songs about Brooklyn. And, sharing my practical and off-beat travel tips. If you enjoy my blog, please follow me. Hover your mouse in the lower right corner of the screen and a pop-up box will appear. Enter your email address and you’ll never miss one of my posts. Your address will not be sold or shared and you won’t be pestered with any sales cons.
Brooklyn has 2.6 million people. Were it an independent city (which it was until the late 19th century), Brooklyn would be the third largest city in America after L.A. and Chicago! So, it’s not surprising that a lot of famous folk in all walks of life come from Brooklyn.
You can see a more complete list of notable Brooklynites elsewhere. When I read those lists I wonder if there’s anyone who isn’t from Brooklyn. In fact, it’s said that 25% of Americans have roots in Brooklyn.
Anyway, in no particular order, here’s my list of, “Gee, I didn’t know he/she was from Brooklyn.”
Carl Sagan, Bugsy Siegel, Joe Paterno, Vince Lombardy, Sandy Koufax, Joe Torre, Wolfman Jack, Arlo Guthrie, Michael Jordan, Mickey Rooney, Harry Nilsson, Chuck Connors, Matt Damon, Danny DeVito, Bobby Fischer, Bob Guccione, Edward Everett Horton, Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer, Moe, Curly and Shemp Howard aka The 3 Stooges (Larry Fine was from Philly but I hearby pronounce him an Honorary Brooklyn Boy.)
Clara Bow – the It Girl of silent films. They say her thick Brooklyn accent made her move into talking pictures impossible. But, I’ve seen one of her talkies and she was terrific. Go know.
Margaret Dumont – the very un-Brooklyn seeming society matron in the Marx Brothers films. She and Edward Everett Horton are excellent examples of early 20th century posh-New York speech. They almost sound British.
Jennie Jerome – Winston Churchill’s mother. She lived in Cobble Hill.
Other Queens of Kings County include – Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Debbie Gibson, Rita Hayworth, Barbara Stanwyck, Lena Horne, Priscilla Presley and Mary Tyler Moore.
During Prohibition, Mayor LaGuardia cracked down on saloons and forced them to serve food to combat drunkenness. Since then every New York bar has had a “grill,” if you count a broken hot plate with old newspapers piled on top of it and stored next to the eternally out-of-order toilet as a “grill.” I’d never heard of anyone in Brooklyn eating (or peeing) in a bar & grill – except in the Gallo Brothers Bar & Grill. It had an excellent Italian kitchen. But, only the wives and girlfriends of the local Mafia were allowed to enjoy it. One of these broads was driven there in a limo every night even though she lived all of three blocks away. Did I see Jimmy Durante drinking in Gallo’s one day? Maybe it was just a man with a big honker who shouted out to me, “Stop gawkin’ at me ya little bastid and go fuck your mother.”
My neighborhood’s Chinese laundry sat beside the “Ladies Entrance” to the Gallo Brothers Bar & Grill. The Gallo boys were notorious Mafia “wise guys” who ran a bookie parlor hidden behind a door at the back of the laundry. History does not relate if the Chinaman got a piece of the action or had no choice. On Thanksgiving, the Gallos distributed turkeys and booze to neighborhood numbskulls, which bought their undying loyalty – “Hey, leave dem alone. Dem Gallo boys is good boys.”
In 1972, Crazy Joey Gallo was assassinated in Umberto’s Clam House in Little Italy and Bob Dylan wrote a song about him. (Tourists still gawk outside Umberto’sunaware that the original joint where Joey got whacked is blocks away.)