Jews and comedy--the two go together like lox and a bagel, with a little schmear for good measure. But Jews and racketeering fronts? Or gang violence? Well, that goes together like lox and a Sausage McMuffin. Somehow, Warren Adler's new Funny Boys manages to wrap all these things up into a dark yet irreverent novel about Brooklyn's Jewish gangs of the 1930s and the tummlers, or comedians, who entertained them.
It centers on the so-called borscht belt, a popular vacation spot in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York that many city Jews retreated to during the oppressive summer months. The entertainment du jour was comedy, and many comic greats got their start by working the belt's hotels. Adler's two main characters are Mickey Fine, a nice Jewish tummler from Brooklyn, and Miriam Feder--or Mutzie, as all her friends call her--a nice Jewish girl, also from Brooklyn.
Initially, they know nothing of each other, but their paths cross at the bucolic Gorlick's Greenhouse hotel. And once they meet, it's every Jewish mother's dream, hitting it off like a kosher version of Romeo and Juliet. The only problem is the gang of Jewish mobsters that Mutzie somehow got herself involved with. Mickey, determined to save Mutzie from the hoodlums she came with, must come up with a plan to save her and at the same time bring down these garish thugs and their entire enterprise, which stretches from Brooklyn all the way to the hotels.
It is hard to pinpoint what exactly kept the pages turning while reading Funny Boys. It isn't thought-provoking or groundbreaking, and the writing isn't particularly captivating either, except maybe for all the transliterated Yiddish words. In fact, at some points the book felt like an attempted narrative from the desk of a bored Passions staff writer, complete with stereotypical dialects injected into the dialogue to help with "authenticity." But still, the pages kept melting away.
Perhaps then, like a daytime soap, it wasn't so much the story that held interest but a curious desire to see just where the hell this could be going. In that respect, Adler is successful in teasing you through the book like an experienced comedian leading an unsuspecting audience through another joke to the punch line.