I usually avoid talking about how much I love small presses. Partly because my feeling is that I’m so completely, obviously biased (both my novels are published by a smallish independent press, and I’m very happy with this state of affairs) that my opinion on the matter doesn’t carry much weight, and partly because the topic can quickly degenerate, among certain of my more committedly small-press-published novelist friends, into an “and I wouldn’t want to be published by a major press anyway, because they sometimes publish garbage” kind of a conversation, which I’m not really down with: it’s not that I have any desire to be published by anyone other than Unbridled Books, it’s just that I’m baffled by the idea that I’m expected to seriously condemn the houses that brought us Await Your Reply, Brooklyn, and Let The Great World Spin.
And yet: every now and again I’ll come across a book published by a small press that somehow seems, for all its dazzling excellence, like it might not have made it past the front door at a major publishing house. I’m not sure where I first heard about Hesh Kestin’s The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats, published last November by Dzanc Books; I think perhaps it was from one of the guys at ThreeGuysOneBook. Shoeshine Cats doesn’t seem to have been very widely reviewed, which strikes me as a minor tragedy—this is one of the best and most wholly original books I’ve come across in a while.
The title character is Shushan Cats, a Jewish gangster famous throughout the five boroughs of Kestin’s version of 1963 New York, but the story is narrated by Russell Newhouse—twenty years old, an orphan, coasting effortlessly through his course work at Brooklyn College, mostly preoccupied with trying to sleep with the largest possible percentage of Brooklyn’s young female population.
Russell has recently been recruited to take the minutes for the Bhotke Young Men’s Society, a sleepy organization of immigrants in Brooklyn. He’s the only member of the Society who might reasonably be considered young, and he’s there only because his late father was a member. His cohorts are older Jewish men, foreign-born; their children are entirely assimilated, but for these men, Kestin writes, “American was not a noun but a verb: you had to work at it.” The Bhotke Young Men’s Society’s anxiously under-Americanized members have voted to change the official language from Yiddish to English, and Russell’s English is impeccable.
Midway through Russell’s first meeting as official minute-taker the doors fly open, and Russell meets the notorious Shushan Cats for the first time. Kestin is a master of character description: “The figure who stood there—it seemed for minutes—was one of those small men native to Brooklyn who appeared to have been boiled down from someone twice the size, the kind who when a doctor tries to give him an injection the needle bends.”
Shushan Cats would like to join the Society. Membership in the Bhotke Young Men’s Society comes with a cemetary plot in Queens, and Cats’ mother has just died. Within minutes Russell has been recruited to plan the gangster’s mother’s funeral. Within days Shushan Cats has disappeared and Russell has been installed as his protégé and unlikely successor. He finds himself at the helm of a criminal enterprise, forced to navigate a New York City underworld wherein the suits are well-tailored, the language sharp, and control of the Fulton Fish Market hangs in the balance.
The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats is a fast, fearless, darkly comic book, the sort of thing that other writers read and wish they’d written. This is a feverish world, a refracted angle on 1963 New York that feels more vivid than reality. I find it admirable in part for its tinge of the improbable, its impossible suavité and secret rooms. Kestin catches us up in a gritty enchantment.
Where the book falters slightly is when Kestin breaks the spell: every so often we’re snapped out of the narrative with a brief digression meant to place this world in a historical context. We’re told that a purse purchased by Shushan Cats’ sister for $150 would be worth more than $1500 today, for instance, and of the Fulton Fish Market, Kestin notes that it “would later be relocated to the Bronx, thus freeing up valuable real estate for the stock brokers and bankers who would be buying condos on this site…” But it isn’t immediately apparent that the 2005 relocation of the Market is relevant to a story set in 1963, or that a note on inflation between early ‘60s and the present adds to the story; interruptions like these, in my entirely subjective opinion, serve only to distract us.
But the faltering is slight. I loved this book. I think that in some ways The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats represents the best of what small presses have to offer: freshness and originality, a unique voice, a boldness too frequently absent from our literature.
Bonus Link: A Year in Reading: Hesh Kestin