STICK WITH YOUR own kind," they used to say back in the Irish neighborhoods of Chicago, and you could grow to adulthood there and never get to know a Protestant. (Jews were just a rumor.) Jimmy Breslin must have heard this in the borough of Queens, where he grew up, and knew it for the bad advice it was. As a newspaperman, the cigar-chomping columnist for the New York Daily News became an intimate of the city, knew every corner and block of all five boroughs and the people of every ethnic background and culture who live there. In New York it is a commonplace to say that nobody knows the town better than Jimmy Breslin. It is probably literally true. And that -- never mind what specific series of columns -- is what brought him the Pulitzer Prize for commentary this year.
But what's bad advice for a newspaperman may not necessarily be such a bad notion for a novelist. And while Breslin has, with varying degrees of success, written about Brooklyn Mafia Italians (in The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight), the Puerto Rican drug trade in the Bronx (Forsaking All Others), and the IRA's struggle against the Prots and the Brits in the Six Counties of Northern Ireland (World Without End, Amen), he had yet to write a full book about the Irish-Americans with whom he grew up in Queens. (The first third of World Without End, Amen put his Irish cop at home in Queens, and it is pure gold; the remainder, alas, is not.) And so, for a long time, people who followed Jimmy Breslin, who really believed in the guy, have sensed that he had a really terrific novel in him, one about his "own kind," just struggling to be let out. Table Money is it.
It tells the story of Owney Morrison, a Vietnam Medal of Honor winner and a sandhog from a family of sandhogs. Breslin starts his narrative far back with Florence Morrison, who emigrated from Ireland to New York in 1869, and he traces the history of the family in its efforts to escape the poverty that dogs succeeding generations in their moves from Manhattan to the Bronx to Queens. But this is Owney's story, and that of his wife Dolores, and the genealogical first chapter that precedes it seems there to give it all a kind of epic quality. This may seem a bit bombastic for what at least in outline is a domestic drama, but it's also Breslin's intention to present the panorama of Queens, to give a sense of the whole place and the people who live there. And that would seem to justify the use of this device. Once you finish Table Money, you will never again be able to think of the borough in quite the same way. Next time you land at LaGuardia you might even be moved to ask the cabbie to slow down and drive through the streets instead of taking the expressway over the Triboro.
Owney Morrison meets Dolores Kaufhold, half-German and half-Irish (though not quite that either, for she was informally adopted as an infant by her childless parents), at a soda fountain the day before he is to ship off for Vietnam. She, a freshman at Queens College with ambitions for medical school, is attracted to the big, good-looking Irish guy and falls in love with him by mail. His agonized, graphic letters from the war affect her so deeply that when he returns a hero she marries him after the briefest of courtships. When she becomes pregnant almost immediately and is forced to leave college, it looks as though the two will be trapped into living the lives their parents lived. And while this may not seem so bad to Owney, Dolores resists. She wants something more for him -- and for herself.
Then Owney, plagued by devils he has brought back with him from Vietnam, begins drinking more and more, staying out nights and missing work, and Dolores begins to resist with a passion. She thinks she's fighting for her marriage, but she's really fighting for her freedom. Owney is an alcoholic. As she describes him later in the book, "He is reassured when there is something he can do with his body that requires bravery. Something where he can use his hands and his reactions. Something that threatens him. He is absolutely fearless. But he can't deal with an interior enemy." To her, he is an alcoholic pure and simple. She leaves him, taking their baby, and goes back to live with her mother and return to college.
In a way, she's got him dead to rights. He's a drinker, all right -- like his father and like all but one of the sandhogs he works with. But alcoholism is never pure and simple -- and as it turns out Dolores is no jewel herself. She has no grasp of the frightening conditions in which her husband works daily -- which are enough, as they used to say, to drive a man to drink. When, off the sauce, Owney phones her at her mother's and tells her that a man working beside him was just crushed by falling rock, she hangs up on him -- and he, predictably, goes out on a binge. It becomes apparent fairly early that she is far more interested in realizing her own ambitions than in rescuing Owney or of saving their marriage.
There are millions who would applaud her for this. But the dynamics of this situation should not be so quickly understood. What Jimmy Breslin has put before us in Table Money, though he does not belabor it, is fundamentally a tragedy of class. Owney Morrison is a pure product of the working class. No matter that he makes more money than most white-collar types, and no matter that he may eventually wind up in the union leadership -- he's working class all the way.
Dolores, on the other hand, is middle-class -- not just in her aspirations, which are pure bourgeois (a doctor, after all), but also in her grasp of life's difficulties. Confronted with problems, she sees proximate and obvious solutions, nothing heroic -- which is, of course, the middle-class way of dealing with things. She really has no idea what Owney is all about. Only at the end of the novel does she begin to have a glimmer:
"Maybe that's what he's for, she thought, big emergencies. What good is all the courage if it's something you can use only in a great emergency? You're supposed to place your hands on life every day. Then she told herself, Maybe that's what it's for. Big emergencies. So his life floated from one calamity to another. What about most people who could handle nothing and would clutch his arm if something went wrong? Maybe I should have realized that and tried to fit it all in. She shook her head against this brooding thought."
More than a class tragedy, this is also a tragedy of the sexes, a commentary on marriage (or a lot of marriages) today. Owney has the potential for greatness in him; Dolores has the potential for a nice, tax-sheltered income.
But I promised you the panorama of Queens laid before you and believe me, Jimmy Breslin delivers. It's there in bits of dialogue: A mother complains of her son driven nutty by the war, "I'll tell you, it's an accident living with him." When a black woman calls her man a dog, he responds, "Then you nothin' but a . . . leash!" And the wild characters -- Philip McNiff, an off-the-wall lawyer who rescues Owney and Dolores separately from trouble; Sharon, the little bar waitress who gets even in a big way; and old man Kramer who swallowed his Medicard card just to teach his wife a lesson. (Breslin can't mention a name without telling you a story.) It's there, too, in the little essays he delivers on the mores and folkways of Queens -- the Mungo Park of Flushing Avenue.
And it works! It's glorious, just the sort of riotous, discursive writing that makes a novel wonderful reading in the woolly old Dickens tradition. I haven't read a better American novel this year, and I certainly don't expect to read one as good in what's left of it.