Rumble in Brooklyn: A Memoir
By Joseph Trigoboff
Bare Knuckles Press
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
Life was pretty easy in the Fifties. Sock hops, drive-ins, and Wolfman Jack on the radio. All this was true … up to a point. If you were white and lived in the suburbs. History is about the recording of events and their interpretation. History is also about erasing the unpleasant bits and wrapping them in a fuzzy blur of nostalgia. Rumble in Brooklyn: A Memoir by Joseph Trigoboff tells the story of Joe’s childhood and early college years in the Fifties and early Sixties. Growing up in a family of secular “cultural Jews” (meaning: non-practicing) in East New York, Brooklyn, we read plenty about doo-wop, teen crushes, and visits to the local candy stores. There’s also knife fights, gang-on-gang rumbles, and intense antisemitism and racism. Good old days? A more innocent time? If you believe that, would you like to buy the Brooklyn Bridge?
The memoir tells the story of Joe growing up on the mean streets of East New York. With his young friends, they talk about music, girls, and mobsters. Joe grew up in the part of Brooklyn that mobsters used as their dumping grounds. On his way to school or walking to a friend’s house, Joe would see these men hanging out in front of social clubs. When he wasn’t obsessing about music and girls, he was running to escape the anti-Semitic violence from the Italian gangs. Even inside the neighborhood synagogue, the Jewish community was beset by harassment, graffiti, and violence. It should be noted that is shortly after World War 2. In this memoir, the reader witnesses the ever-shifting contours of American hate. Once black and Puerto Rican families begin moving into the neighborhood, the Italian gangs want to become allies with the Jewish gangs. Nothing can make one pro-Jewish that good old fashioned American anti-black race hatred. It would be tragic if this wasn’t so depressingly predictable. This also explains why Sikh families were attacked in the days following the September 11th attacks, because racists are violence-prone idiots.
Another facet of Rumble is Joe’s personal struggle to get out of the neighborhood. His father, an educator, instills a love of literature in his son. Joe takes this passion and uses it as a means to enter college. As other friends went into the military and got shipped off to Vietnam, Joe went to college and studied literature. We also see how provincial and isolated the neighborhood experience is, since his friends have trouble seeing beyond their precious corners. In college Joe discovers the Beats and explores Greenwich Village. Among mob stories, one realizes how hermetically sealed the criminal subculture is. The memoir ends (spoilers?) with his family moving out of East New York and settling in the suburbs.
While this is a fascinating account of a live adjacent to the criminal element in Brooklyn, the telling fumbles. Trigoboff gives us his early life experiences, but fails to make them come alive on the page. Rumbles and street fights and random everyday violence become monotonous. Characters blur together, making it a challenge to tell one from another. The greatest sin isn’t the violence or the hatred, but having it told in such a boring manner. This is disappointing, since I am a big fan of Goodfellas and The Sopranos. It’s just hard to get behind a crime story when I’m bored.
Out of 10/7.0