Adam Berlin’s sophomore novel reads like Nick Adams without the homophobia
It’s an interesting choice of life model, since Belmondo’s character is himself an imitation of the Humphrey Bogart tough guys of Hollywood’s golden era. Like the characters Belmondo portrayed on screen, Jared is very handsome, charismatic, and a small-time crook. He supports himself and his son Ben by lifting wallets from unsuspecting tourists and businessmen in New York. The two share an apartment (the mother’s out of the picture) in Greenwich Village, though how they’ve managed to rent an apartment there on a pickpocket’s salary is never explained.
Ben, who narrates the story, says: “I didn’t have a mother. My father evaded my questions about her, kept his answers vague, the way he stayed away from all past specifics. The future. The past. All my father focused on was the present and perhaps that was why he loved movies so much. It was two hours of present. The movies could be replayed and replayed, present upon present, a constant now.”
Ben is a quietly brilliant student at New York’s selective Peter Stuyvesant High School, and clearly the sensible one in his makeshift family of two. He has to be dependable since his father is often out on the town with the various ladies he hooks up with, including a photographer obsessed with taking pictures of dead people. Ben also narrates how his dad once scored with his seventh grade teacher after parent-teacher night. At first, Ben doesn’t seem to mind that he’s left largely to fend for himself. “‘Have fun,’ I said like I was the father. ‘Don’t stay out too late.’”
Yet despite Ben’s outward veneer of steadiness, the teen is dealing with a few demons of his own, namely coming to grips with his attraction for boys, including his good-looking friend James.
Berlin tells his story, through Ben, in a suitably understated crisp prose that suggests the deeper emotions that Ben has been suppressing and is only beginning to confront. Though he describes his father’s livelihood with cavalier frankness, Ben’s actions indicate that he’s not as accepting of his home life as he first seems. For example, a wonderfully tense scene of Ben and a few friends skipping out on a check at a diner illustrates his apparent feelings of displacement from his father’s criminal career, his missing mother, and his own emerging sexual identity.
Though Jared is the flashier character, Ben makes for a good choice as the narrator. He’s smart beyond his years, in full self-discovery, likeable, solid, and stable—in sharp contrast to his father who’s got stars in his eyes. Berlin handles with a subtle tenderness the scenes in which Ben begins experimenting with his sexuality.
For a while, the book chugs on amiably, exuding a breezy pace. Although the concept of the irresponsible parent raising a responsible kid is overdone in literature and on screen, Berlin breathes new life into the conceit. Then suddenly, in a surprising twist that occurs after Ben gets gay bashed, Berlin drives his plot off of a cliff in a conclusion that’s as shocking as it is inevitable. The revenge that Ben’s father exacts on the gay basher is one of the most satisfying retaliation scenes I’ve ever read.
“Belmondo Style” is an apt characterization of Berlin’s prose style, which is cool and low-key. The novel includes Hemingway-esque passages such as the following: “My father felt my forehead. He said I felt fine. He picked up his coat and kissed me goodbye. He told me he loved me. I listened to his springy footsteps on the hospital floor until they were gone.”
The novel is an easy, enjoyable read that moves along smoothly, a light entertainment that only darkens ever so gradually. By the end, you’re surprised by how much you’ve grown to care about these characters. Some of the plot elements require a certain suspension of disbelief: The father has been stealing for this amount of time and never been arrested? No one’s ever questioned how he has supported himself and his son? Still, much like a classic movie, it’s worth ignoring these smaller nagging questions in order to enjoy the trip.