Fans of author-illustrator Don Brown should know straight off that his first novel bears no resemblance to any of his picture books, save one. His Kid Blink Beats the World recounted the true-life tale of newsies on strike in 1899 Manhattan, and it was his research into the immigrant-rich ethnic stew of the Lower East Side that led to The Notorious Izzy Fink (Roaring Brook, 9/06).
While Brown’s picture books — even the gritty tale of Kid Blink — have a certain softness to them, The Notorious Izzy Fink is the least genteel book for young readers that I can remember. Given the central characters (adolescent boys, gangsters, and corrupt cops) and the setting, that seems appropriate. In the afterword, Brown himself makes a point of offering no apologies for the coarseness.
From this slim novel’s opening words (“I clocked Fink so hard on the side of his head I coulda sworn it rang like a bell”), Brown gives notice of the sort of rough-and-tumble, upside-the-head story he’s got in store. Narrator Sam Glodsky — half Irish and half Jewish, though not generally described quite so delicately — scrapes and scraps his way through a tough, tough existence, supporting his recently widowed and thoroughly devastated Pop. An opportunity arises to score some quick cash by doing a favor for animal-loving gangster Monk Eastman. The hitch is that the gig pairs Sam with the novel’s titular thug. Well, there’s that, plus Sam’s very real risk of contracting cholera.
In one scene, Brown describes “curses flying around like pigeons over bread crumbs.” The same could almost be said for the book itself, and you could swap “ethnic slurs,” “dialect,” and “scatological references” in place of “curses” and still be on target. The Age of Innocence, this ain’t. But the vibrant details and dialogue that fill The Notorious Izzy Fink feel authentic rather than gratuitous, and they serve a satisfying, fast-moving story. What more da ya want, ya mug?