If you’re of a certain age, you might expect Thane Rosenbaum’s comic novel “How Sweet It Is!,” about Miami Beach in the early 1970s, to include Jackie Gleason. And there he is, the Great One, narrating the prologue as if he’s delivering his opening TV monologue. Actually, he’s reminiscing from his Mount Sinai Clinic bed about the great life he has had, working with the biggest names in show business as the best-known fat man in the world. Sure, he’s a little bitter about his show’s being canceled: Imagine building CBS and then being replaced by Sonny and Cher.
He’s in the hospital because it turns out the Surgeon General was right about smoking four packs of cigarettes a day. Sophie Posner, a Jewish gangster and a survivor of the Nazis, resides on the same floor. The fat man’s equal and confidante, she’s a hilarious and pitiable character who’s so tough that when the doctor tells her she has cancer, she says, “You think this is the worst news I’ve ever heard?”
In subsequent chapters, Rosenbaum tells the wacky story of the fictional Sophie’s life as the lieutenant for real-life gangster Meyer Lansky. They meet in 1972, soon after he’s deported back to Miami Beach from Israel. Lansky wants to turn the sleepy peninsula into a gambling Riviera, but he discovers that his crew members are flunkies who do nothing but “consume massive quantities of cholesterol.” Luckily, that’s when he meets Sophie, who threatens to break Lansky’s arms and legs. He admires her moxie and hires her to make collections, brass knuckles in one hand and leather sap in the other. They rub — and sometimes break — elbows with hippies, politicians, celebrities and sports stars.
Rosenbaum’s prose is populated with puns, though some of his wordplay is calloused: “Sophie took no pride in baking. Indeed, she had once been among those selected for baking — but on the wrong side of the oven door.”
Still, it’s hard to resist raising a toast to a book that shows Lansky, Frank Sinatra, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Muhammad Ali at a Little League Baseball game umpired by Fidel Castro.
As Gleason would say, “And awaaaay we go!”
Joseph Peschel is a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota.
By Thane Rosenbaum
Mandel Vilar. 194 pp. $24.95