Opinion: Andrew Gross, ‘Button Man’
Kirkus Reviews, a highly credible source, calls Andrew Gross’ “Button Man” (2018, 371 pages) a “highly satisfying story of family loyalty, persistence, courage, and crime.” I agree. It’s the type of story that I call “straight forward,” meaning no surprise twists, no subplots. It’s a basically linear plot with Morris Raab (nee Morris Rabishevsky) as the protagonist. He’s one of the Rabishevsky brothers who grew up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a tough place in the early twentieth century where a boy either stood up to bullies and took his lumps or caved in and became a victim, a condition that would have life-long ramifications.
At 12 years of age, Morris quits school and takes a job doing low-level chores at Majestic Garment Company in New York’s storied Jewish garment district. On payday, a street gang led by Louis Buchalter tries to shake him down, but he offers to fight Buchalter for his check. Buchalter, who grows up to be a cutthroat mobster, gives Morris a pass. That “pass” seems to be good for life.
Morris, who is as intelligent (though uneducated) as he is brave, is running the garment company by the time he’s twenty and the owners decide to retire. His fearless and imaginative approach to business nets him an account with a major distributor, and the business takes off. But, in the decade between his first encounter with Buchalter and landing his biggest account, the mob-controlled unions have dominated much of the garment business, extracting “protection money” and requiring manufacturers to buy their raw materials from their list of wholesalers.
As his business continues to grow, Morris brings his brothers, Sol and Harry, in as partners, creating Raab Brothers. College-educated Sol has a head for numbers and becomes the accountant; Harry seems to have no talent, other than being an entertaining guy who made a buck now and then when hanging around with Buchalter’s button men, union enforcers and the core of Murder Incorporated. Morris and Sol believe that making Harry part of the company will give him a regular income and keep him away from unsavory company.
This is a story that pits family loyalty and personal integrity against almost irresistible pressure from the criminal world. Buchalter, who becomes known a “Lepke,” sends his middleman Cy Haddad to Morris to negotiate a deal with the union. Once more, Morris stands up to the bully. But other Jewish manufacturers have capitulated having witnessed one of their brethren tossed from an eighth-story window, another doused with sulfuric acid, and others similarly victimized.
Having no allies within the industry, Morris turns to a dedicated law-enforcement officer, New York Special Prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey (a real historical character). What Dewey asks of Morris makes the chief of Raab Brothers reflect on a rabbi’s comment at a recent funeral, “What does it mean to be a good man?”
“Button Man” is a multigenerational novel that reminds us that attempting to achieve the “American Dream” does not come without struggle, conflict, sweat, and dedication.
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Jim Glynn may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.