Sitting Shiva by Elliot Feldman

From The Godfather (rerun ad nauseam on TV) and HBO’s wildly popular The Sopranos to The Gangs of New York and Road to Perdition, our fascination with the not-so-secret world of organized crime seems to be insatiable. At one time an unsavory presence on the periphery of polite society, the members of the underworld have attained something resembling celebrity status since the days of Al Capone and Baby Face Nelson. In the last two decades, “Teflon Don” Gotti, Lucky Luciano, Vito Genovese, Carlos Gambino and “Crazy Joe” Gallo have made national headlines and become popular personalities in their own right. Even the places where crime kingpins met their grisly end in a volley of gunfire, such as Spark’s Steakhouse in midtown Manhattan and Umberto’s Clam House in New York’s Little Italy, have found new standing as tourist destinations for the multitudinous fans of the rich and the infamous.

Elliot Feldman’s Sitting Shiva is, according to the book cover, a “gritty yet introspective look at a son coming to grips with the death of his father, a small-time Detroit gangster.” Charlie Fish is the son, and his father, Morris, was a small-time gangster and gambler who was found dead under mysterious circumstances in a sleazy hotel room in Detroit. The Fishes are Jewish, and the narrative takes place over the week of shiva, a ritual period of mourning for the dead in Judaism.

Alexander Portnoy meets Don Corleone? Philip Roth teams up with Mario Puzo? Well, not exactly, but Feldman lends the somewhat cliched mob themes a slightly different flavor, at least.

In Sitting Shiva, the first in a planned Detroit trilogy of novels, Feldman does a good job of portraying the ambivalence children often feel toward their parents — and in this case, the dicey familial relationships are greatly complicated by the underworld connections that have colored the Fishes’ lives. Celia Fish expects her son to spend the week with her and the rest of the family, but Charlie wanders off to try to learn how and why his father died. His anger, disappointment, and love for Morris all mix with a secret fear that he might be just like his father. His relationship with his mother is tainted by memories of her egocentric behavior, as well as her seeming embarrassment at him throughout his childhood.

Unfortunately, Feldman’s skill at characterization often falters when dealing with secondary characters, which appear flat and one-dimensional. This is especially true of Celia, who is portrayed without any redeeming qualities, a regrettable failure in terms of creating a complex psychological scenario for Charlie’s troubled past. Technical awkwardness also mars Sitting Shiva. The plot winds back and forth from the present to the past. Perhaps Feldman was trying to demonstrate how chaotic Charlie’s life felt, and this popular literary device might well have worked if it had been handled more adeptly. However, having an awkward flashback to a different time period every five or ten pages results in a very choppy flow, and makes it hard to keep track of who was where, and when. Additionally, Feldman frequently makes use of double quotes, which is distracting and unnecessary. For example, in a scene where a high school-aged Charlie and his friends are talking at the lunch table: “He lifted his leg and farted for emphasis. Howie Schultz gave him ‘the finger.’ Everyone else at the ‘funny loser’ table cursed, held their noses, scrambled out of their seats, and exited the lunchroom.”

Overall, Sitting Shiva was intriguing to read. On the plus side, Feldman has a very sharp and caustic sense of humor, and his portrayal of the main character’s rage, feelings of inadequacy, and search for a purpose in life is very well done. While plotting and secondary characterization could have been stronger, Sitting Shiva will probably keep you turning the pages — as well as waiting for it to come to a movie theater near you.