By Sidney Zion
Donald I. Fine. 426 pp. $19.95END NOTES
Sidney Zion is a New Yorker who, in an earlier era, would have been called a man about town. A graduate of Yale Law School, a former criminal lawyer and assistant U.S. attorney, a newspaperman and writer frequently seen with politicos and power brokers, Zion is to be found daily in the barrooms of his favorite New York haunts, a glass of Johnny Walker Black always in front of him.
When Zion's acquaintances arrive at one of his watering holes and see him at the bar, they frequently head straight for him, for they know they will be treated to an amusing flow of political gossip, chatter about celebrity misdeeds, ethnic jokes, media scuttlebutt, Mafia stories and, above all, anecdotes about the infinite chicanery of the legal profession. Now Zion has transmuted his barroom palaver into a novel that is part "The Godfather," part "Presumed Innocent" and part "The Bonfire of the Vanities."
The book is set in a sleazy netherworld where elected officials, party hacks, judges, Mafiosi, power brokers, the White House, shysters, union bosses and journalists continually trade favors. Those who grant the favors are paid in the coin of this kingdom -- "markers." The person who receives the favor is indebted to the person giving the favor, and must at some point repay it. You remember the pattern from "The Godfather."
The central character of "Markers" resembles the Godfather himself. Abe Roshevsky is a New York gangster, trucking company owner and political kingmaker who plays the marker game to perfection. A sentimental family man, Abe wants to use his accumulation of markers to advance the career of his grandson, an idealistic journalist named Mike O'Rourke, but O'Rourke will have none of it. Mike's tilting with the world of markers is a main theme of the book.
So Abe takes as a protege Mike's best friend, a cunning lawyer named Jesse Frank. Not that Frank needs much help. The criminal courts of New Jersey and New York have never seen his like for shrewdness, theatricality and duplicity. Zion lavishes his best writing on Frank's cases, and one trial -- of a man charged with incest -- takes up a quarter of the novel. It's a gem.
Unfortunately, Zion has other fish to fry. Here, "The Bonfire of the Vanities" makes a useful comparison, since it covers something of the same fevered ethnic scene (though there are no major black figures in Zion's book). Tom Wolfe knows the city well, but he is removed from the fray and stands above it, a country-boy Savonarola in the great tradition of American comic writers such as Mark Twain, George Ade and Petroleum V. Nasby, for whom the big city is a sinkhole of political corruption and unseemly foreign influences.
Zion, on the other hand, revels in the ethnic tumult -- and he takes sides. Indeed, he is like a kid from the ghetto who sees the world strictly in terms of his own ethnic group. A continuing theme in the book, for instance, is how tough both Jewish prizefighters and Jewish gangsters used to be -- a kind of grown-up version of street corner braggadocio: My old man can beat your old man. Zion even posits a sleek Jewish lawyer from Los Angeles as the boss of all bosses in the American criminal world. He's apparently necessary because the Italians aren't smart enough to handle big-time criminal activity.
Such adolescent posturing is entirely human and forgivable, but Zion takes it a step further. In his journalism, Zion is a frequent polemicist for arguments espoused by supporters of Likud, the party of Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon in Israel. Similar stuff is woven throughout the novel. That includes a condemnation of David Ben Gurion for his activities against Irgun, the armed group whose leaders became the main figures in Likud. In addition -- and contributing nothing to the story line of the novel -- Zion indicts Joseph P. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt for selling Europe's Jews down the river before World War II.
Whatever the facts, the effect of this sort of thing on the novel is not good. The few poor Arabs who happen to find themselves in the plot get a real going-over. They are venal, homosexual and, of course, terrorists -- vulgar cartoons. And you might also be interested in knowing that the leaders of Saudi Arabia owe their personal security to information provided by Israeli intelligence. My father has better spies than your father.
This propaganda is an unnecessary distraction. A deeper problem is the reader's ability to accept the fictional world that Zion has created. The novel is heavily about politics, but there is hardly a breath of the Republic here. In Zion's fictional universe, key decisions about the lives of the citizenry are made by a cabal of fixers who, it turns out, are really not such bad chaps at all.
Like the Mafiosi of Mario Puzo, they are often stand-up guys, the kind we admired in the old neighborhood. Occasionally, of course, they put a knife in your back, but that's life. Moreover, the fixers in the book look like choirboys compared to government officials. When a federal district attorney violates the code of markers and brings an indictment against Jesse Frank -- who inherits Abe Roshevsky's mantle as consummate fixer -- it turns out to be a vile frame-up. Well, Jesse really turns the tables on that bozo.
The book jacket of "Markers" is replete with laudatory quotes from well-known people. In one quote, Donald Trump assures us that "Markers" shows "how the real world works." How wrong he is, and how wrong Zion is. The real world is in fact based on law and principle, and every day that passes presents the happy spectacle of another fixer going to jail, being convicted, sliding into bankruptcy or facing removal from public office. And -- guess what? -- all their markers avail them nothing.
The reviewer is a New Yorker who writes about fiction, food and travel.