Boogaloo on 2nd Avenue: A Novel of Pastry, Guilt, and Music - reviewed by Thaddeus Rutkowski

Boogaloo on 2nd Avenue: A Novel of Pastry, Guilt, and Musicby Mark Kurlansky Ballantine Books, 336 pages $24.95 Review by Thaddeus Rutkowski

Nonfiction and short-story writer Mark Kurlansky has set his first novel, Boogaloo on 2nd Avenue, in New York's pre-gentrified Lower East Side. The time is the summer of 1988, when Michael Dukakis actually held a lead over George H.W. Bush in the polls, the Mets were on track to win the Eastern Division, and computer music, private preschools and tattoos were novelties. In the blocks between Second Avenue and the East River, and between East 10th and Rivington streets, commercial development had yet to arrive, the drug trade ruled certain areas, and fatal shootings were alarmingly common. The neighborhood's poet laureate, Gilberto Banza (modeled perhaps after the late Miguel Piñero), has little choice but to write about getting shafted in Loisaida.

Mr. Kurlansky plants us in the primordial East Village (a nice, cozy name bestowed, we learn, by real estate brokers) with a cast of diverse characters not far removed from their homelands in Eastern Europe, Sicily, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. These folk haven't forgotten their native customs, and they're outgoing sorts, so they don't mind sharing old-world or old-island knowledge with their neighbors. They live, love, make music and chow down.

Their willingness to mingle generates an over-the-top inner-city culture. One product of this blend is the hit song "The Yiddish Boogaloo." Popularized by a Nuyorican boogalooista who performed at Jewish clubs in the Catskills, the song serves as an anthem for the book's Lower East Side residents. Characters shake their tuchuses as they walk down the streets, bopping to a mind's-ear medley of "The Yiddish Boogaloo" and Irving Berlin songs. A local landlord, Harry Seltzer, even wants to bring the boogaloo king out of retirement for a comeback tour (the singer/songwriter is now working on his memoirs in a vacant-lot casita, or farmer's garden).

For readers confused by the combination of Latin beats and Yiddish lyrics, the author provides a bit of fictional musicology: Chow Mein Vega, né Carlos Rodriguez, came up the words for "The Yiddish Boogaloo." In the process, Mr. Vega invented the key word "meshugaloo," which happens to be the only word in the Spiddish language. "Meshugenah," of course, is Yiddish for "crazy," and boogaloo, well, boogaloo "is a fusion. A rhythm and blues beat with a Latin twist. Boogaloo means everything and yet it means nothing. It's very heavy-duty," says Chow Mein in an interview with the Forward newspaper.

In this freewheeling world, not only does everyone go meshugaloo after exposure to "The Yiddish Boogaloo," everyone also goes crazy for ethnic dishes. Food preparation and consumption are, in fact, the major sources of nourishment in the novel. Chow Mein's mother shows the cooks at Saul Grossman's deli how to make pasteles. She also helps Rabbi Chaim Litvak prepare a green-banana mofongo pie to go with services at a small synagogue on 6th Street. Mrs. Rodriguez's pasteles recipe‚ diced pork, banana leaves and all‚ is even included in an appendix of cooking instructions at the back of the book. Elsewhere, the eating of traif‚ food forbidden by Jewish law‚ is a guilty pleasure described in loving, greasy detail.

One of the novel's most effective scenes involves pastry prep and sneaky sex: local business owner and new father Nathan Seltzer hooking up with expert baker Karoline Moellen.

Nathan is a sad case, even though he's his family's allrightnik (not its nogoodnik). He makes little money at his business, the Meshugaloo Copy Shop, because he doesn't like to charge customers. He's afraid of getting stuck in subway cars‚ every train he takes either stalls or catches fire. He's neglected his parental obligation by not teaching his 3-year-old daughter to swim (a Talmudic duty is to teach a life-saving skill). And he harbors adulterous lust for the barefoot, aproned, tattooed Karoline, who entertains him in her apartment after catching his eye in her father's shop, the Edelweiss Bakery.

Inside Karoline's studio, which houses five professional baking ovens, lots of rolling and kneading occurs. Baker and philanderer go way beyond joining forces on a dobas torta. She uses a pastry tube to decorate his hungry body with French meringue. He spanks her with a rubber spatula. The two do whatever they please as the room fills with the fragrance of chocolate buttercream.

Any Lower East Side novel worth its gandules should contain a dramatic arc, and the story of the illicit affair supplies the required ingredients. The action rises to Nathan and Karoline's first encounter, peaks as the two of them bake and shake, and subsides as the straying Nathan tries to sort things out with his family. Will his wife ever notice that he smells of burnt flour? Or will she ignore the telltale signs so she can complete work on her play, a tribute to husbandless anarchist Emma Goldman? Will Nathan ignore his guilt so he can keep coming back to Karoline's for kinkier treatment? Will he learn to whip up a Rigó Jancsi cake while wearing handcuffs? Hint: No one in this neighborhood turns down a free treat.

A more somber subplot drags in the Holocaust and its repercussions. Nathan's uncle, a concentration camp survivor, spends his time holed up in his Rivington Street apartment, watching Mets games and hunting former Nazi officers. He discovers that Karoline's father may be a former SS man. The revelation, which may or may not be true, sheds a different light on all that baking. At the least, it raises questions about tattoos. The Nazis marked their prisoners with ink. Jewish law forbids making gashes in the flesh. Karoline has a tattoo on her lower back. What's going on here?

In the end, what's going on, or what really happens, doesn't matter. What's important is that certain tastes and certain sounds be savored.

Boogaloo on 2nd Avenue sits lightly on the stomach. The book is a big, layered comic buffet built on a thorough knowledge of particular foods and customs. The factual depth is not surprising, since Mr. Kurlansky has worked as a chef and a food-history columnist, and has written popular books on cod and salt. The surprising aspects are the author's genuine sympathy for his characters, and his clear, good-natured, fast-paced prose. Some readers may find a few passages over-seasoned with detail, but book-loving foodies will feel as if they've arrived at a fabulous fiesta.

Thaddeus Rutkowski is author of the novel Roughhouse (Kaya Press), which was a finalist for an Asian American Literary Award.