Blood Sport and the American Dream
The Family Hightower takes a savage and intelligent look at the American Dream, asserting an inextricable link between capitalism and crime in a voice that borders on the eternal. Appropriate, considering the timeless and unattainable aspiration of Brian Francis Slattery’s characters: to “get out”, to escape the prison of wealth and violence and guilt into which they’ve been cast owing to the sins of patriarch Peter Henry Hightower.
A simple overview starts in the present with the namesake grandsons. Peter, the journalist at the moral center, positioned to uncover dark family secrets; Petey, adrift on the fringe, willful participant in ever-deepening criminal enterprise, from peddling dope to minors in Cleveland to financing the human organ harvest in Eastern Europe. The crimes that propel their action have roots in prohibition, three-quarters of a century earlier, with their bootlegging grandfather. In between, the unfulfilled middle generation of siblings haunted by the violent, criminal secrets to their father’s success: Uncle Henry, both legitimately wealthy and criminally complicit; the steely Aunt Sylvie who takes over her father’s empire; parents Rufus and Muriel, the former on the run from his family history, the latter paralyzed by it; and the institutionalized Aunt Jackie, a crippled emblem of her family’s poisoned legacy.
Through these eight characters, and a good many more, Slattery’s keen omniscience delivers the crime story of a century, the pulse of which beats out from the 1947 welterweight bout between Sugar Ray Robinson and Jimmy Doyle. Ringside, a rival mobster threatens Peter Henry with blackmail. All around, twelve thousand souls scream in hunger for blood. Untouchable criminals threatening each other; the soiled masses howling in praise of wealth and power. “It’s the market for violence,” the narrator reports, “and we’re all involved: the mob, legitimate businesses, all of us. It’s all for the money. People don’t want to see a man die, but they do want to see a fight, and they pay to see it.” Slattery’s book delivers the fight, and the grim details that make men rich off unbridled passion for violence.
His tale is grounded on history and fact—obscure Americana, Ukraine’s troubled century, strange third world realities—and takes us from 1995 Cleveland to 1995 Spain, 1994 Cairo to 1986 Sub Saharan Africa, all before traveling back to the era of prohibition and a 20th century historical tour of Ukraine and Romania. Where and when are we? We are all times and all places because this American Dream is an eternal, global dream about getting rich however you can.
The narrative rings true on its details: the book of proverbs from a market in Onitsha, Nigeria, titled Learn to Speak 360 Interesting Proverbs and Know Your True Brother; the Mad Butcher’s human torso, “a woman’s, wrapped in heavy brown paper, a striped summer coat, and a quilt. The thighs are right under it, bundled in the same paper and held together with a rubber band”; the package five feet away, “The head’s in there, with silky light brown hair. The arms and lower legs are in a cardboard box made from two different boxes, one for biscuits, the other for seafood.” The banal turned extraordinary by juxtaposition to the horrible.
A book this true and brutal could do without constant warnings of the violence to come. The conclusion is gruesome, but the narrator sets such high expectations that he can only fail to make us blanch. Other narrative weaknesses detract from the predominately assured writing: Petey’s criminal lifestyle in Ukraine, for example, lacks enough detail to feel truly plausible. Worse, the two FBI agents, Guarino and Easton, are portrayed as little more than silhouettes. At one point they wonder, “How many people will get hurt if we take her out?” The answer, of course: “How many more if we don’t?” Their conundrum may be real; but haven’t we heard this question and compromise before?
Make no mistake, Brian Francis Slattery has proven innovative and quick in unspooling this tale. Innovative how? He introduces Petey’s girlfriend when she’s already a disemboweled corpse, skin all sown up in jagged stitches. Dare the reader care about this eviscerated entity as the narrative delves into her back-story? Turns out we can and do root for a dead thing. In fact, Madalina might be the most noble character in the book, and her story examines the very grim reality of Eastern Europe’s criminal underworld. This is not the freewheeling, frivolous age of parties financed by Jay Gatsby’s bootleg liquor. People here are dying for their livers and their eyes.
“Do you see it now?” the narrator asks. “Where the spine of the story begins and ends? Call it capitalism. Call it American…” To Peter, the Ukrainian-American patriarch, the founder of the family Hightower’s wealth, “Being American is an idea, not an identity. It means you’re rising, progressing, moving forward… it’s really just about money. Money and fucking people. Maybe fucking people over.”
Keen insight, superb pacing. History, culture, brutality, money. There’s Slattery’s American Dream. What a read.
The Family Hightower
By Brian Francis Slattery
Seven Stories Press, Forthcoming September 2014
Reviewed by Ben East
Ben East has worked at various teaching and diplomatic assignments in Africa, the Middle East, and throughout the Americas over the past two decades. Shortlisted for the 2014 Dundee International Book Prize, Ben’s fiction and reviews have appeared in The Foreign Service Journal, Peace Corps Writers, Atticus Review, and Umbrella Factory Magazine.
Follow him on Twitter @hBenEast