Written by John Florio — We first met Jersey Leo in Sugar Pop Moon, reviewed here. A mixed race albino, he’s a Philadelphia inhabitant unlike any other. The year is 1931 and his adventures with moonshine (aka Sugar Pop) in the previous novel behind him, Jersey is running a speakeasy called the Ink Well. He has just become something of a local celebrity for an act of bravery which saved a life, and his story has pushed the pending execution of one Aaron Garvey way down the front page.
Garvey was an school friend of Jersey’s, but is on death row for the murder of a cop. One night when Jersey is tending bar one he gets a call from the penitentiary. As one of his final requests, Garvey has asked that his old friend share his last meal. When Jersey meets Garvey at the prison, the condemned man explains how he came to shoot the cop, and asks Jersey to do him a favour.
Myra, childhood sweetheart of both Gravey and Jersey, has been involved in a crooked business deal with a sadistic mobster called Otto ‘Mr Lovely’ Gorsky. Garvey’s request was that Jersey collect $20,000, the ownership of which is hotly disputed. Jersey goes back to the Ink Well, resigned that there is nothing he can do to save his friend from Old Sparky. When a rogue cop, Reeger, muscles into the bar and demands to know where Garvey is, Jersey glances up at the clock. It is five minutes after midnight, and Garvey has been dead for every one of those minutes. Reeger violently assaults Jersey, just as the radio announces that Garvey has overpowered his guards and is now on the run.
What follows is an elaborate and frequently brutal game of tag. In the blue corner is Jersey, with some less-than-respectable acquaintances and his law-abiding father. In the red corner is the vicious Reeger and his crooked associates. Somewhere in the ring, but with loyalties uncertain, are Myra and the menacing Mr Lovely, who keeps body parts from his victims preserved in alcohol in an old coffee tin – right there on his desk.
It is hard not to compare Jersey Leo with Walter Mosley’s great characters, but Florio’s masterstroke has been to make him an albino. In addition to the casual and endemic racism of the time, he is subjected to abuse from the world at large simply because he’s different. His awareness of his own condition is cruelly precise. He turns on the radio one time, hoping for news of the fugitive Garvey. “Instead of a news report, I get a woman singing a sultry version of Embraceable You. I have no idea who she’s singing about, but I’m right in front of the mirror and can see it’s not me.”
Jersey’s love for Myra dates back to when they were at school. He was vilified for his skin condition. She was the butt of endless jibes because of her club foot. Now, decades later, Jersey dreams of escaping the East Coast with her and making a new life together out west. Even as he lowers the brim of his fedora, dons his dark glasses and wraps a scarf around his face to protect his skin, he fantasises about basking in the California sun. Jersey’s condition defines him, both as hero and victim.
This is a fine novel, full of action and suspense, but more importantly shot through with poetry and pity. For nostalgia fans, there is also a virtual soundtrack of the wonderful songs of Rudy Vallee.
Seventh Street Books
CFL Rating: 5 Stars