TITLE: THE ORGAN GRINDER AND THE MONKEY
(368 PP.) $29.98
This is Sam Moffie's second novel, (after "Swap," a Hollywood Book Festival Honorable Mention.) "The Organ Grinder and the Monkey" captures the world of a trio of oddballs, exploring the roots of small villes like Steubenville and Brookline Mass, and how they all can wind up in the back alleys of Manhattan. Funny, clever, the characters jump off the page with their idiosyncratic views of the world. Book feels like it came out of the Italian neighborhoods of the region, with a nod to Dean Martin, who grew up nearby.
The first oddball that we meet is Seymour Petrillo, whose therapist has written a best-selling book which details Seymour's life as a murderer, and makes it seem that it's Steubenville's influence over him that caused him to turn into a killer. Ohio seems the perfect setting for someone with Seymour's schizophrenic persona - Seymour is constantly quoting his shrink as he tells his story. Part of Seymour's problem is that his father was a Dean Martin-o-file, and like the Frank Sinatra fixation of the Soprano family, somehow Dean's life looms like a shadow over Seymour's. He never gets over the fact that Martin changed his name to become the celebrity he was, and he can't understand why his father would prefer someone who hid from his heritage rather than embraced it. Either way, it's partially responsible for what led him into a life of crime. You can take the kid out of Steubenville, but you can't take Steubenville out of the kid.
It's also revealed that his father had a confused sexuality - at least long enough to have sired him as a child, and his predilection for men breaks up his parent's marriage. As a result, Seymour winds up being much closer to his Italian grandfather and learns about the history of the town, and his own roots through his cantankerous gramps. Seymour reveals that something happened while during one of his weekend visits with his father, and it’s never quite left him. Of course, something had to turn him into a killer, and it might as well be the old confused sexuality rationale.
Eventually Seymour is able to get out of the Ohio valley and makes his way to the Big Apple where he winds up boarding in a New York woman’s apt while pursuing his dream to become a Veterinarian. After all, Seymour has an easier time relating to animals than he does to people. He gets a gig working in an animal shelter.
We met the second of our trio of Moffie’s offbeat characters, this one comes from just outside of Boston, and is named Irving Hanhart. Hanhart is half Jewish and half Irish. His parents are leftwingers from Brookline, the home town of JFK, and they own a bookstore where left wing radicals gather to foment intellectual revolution. The bookstore is called Moishe Pipecks, Yiddish for “Moses‘ Navel.“ Hanhart recounts that on one of his class trips to a city building in Newton, MA, he became so wrapped up in looking at the diorama that he lost his class. A cop shows up and “saves him” - making him realize that all along, deep down, he’d always wanted to be a cop. So he becomes a NY City cop - eventually marries a drug and alcohol abuser, and is what drives him into the arms and dogma of Al-anon. (Family and Friends of Alcholics)
Constance Powers is the most powerful of the three characters that Moffie brings to life. Wanting to be a show girl, she’s really got a producer/agent/shark persona. He describes her at one point as a shark, and that her preferred method of seduction is to bring a date over to her place, then strip down to just her red stiletto heels and walk around naked. She also prefers to have sex without any penetration, that way she can stay in control. Control is key to her persona, and she’s a lively devourer of men. Even though she comes from a wealthy background, she uses her beauty and looks to control the men she wants. But eventually her dreams of being a Rockette in NYC fade, and she winds up being a stripper. Ultimately, she loses control of her life, and what she dreamed of becoming doesn’t quite gel for her.
In the end, all three come together for a Dance of Death. Constance is hunted down and tied up by Seymour, and she uses her Rockette skills to kick Seymour in the eye, killing him, but not before he gets the chance to commit hari kiri, but cutting open his own stomach. Irving shows up later, but enough in time to make Constance fall for him. They wind up together; the stripper with a heart of steel, and the Al-anon loving cop.
“The Organ Grinder and the Monkey” feels like a large canvas with great details. A little bit like an Impressionist painting, when you’re close up, the details are interesting and well observed. However when you step further back from it, it reveals its fuzzy overview - in this case, everything doesn‘t come into focus until the last few pages. The novel would benefit from honing its direction. At times, Moffie shows touches of “The Executioner’s Song” by Mailer, where we follow lives from various points of view. However, it’s important that they all lead to some kind of vanishing point so as an audience we have more to take away from the ending and we root for them to wind up together.
Really shows promise and an ability to compress interesting characters and ideas. However, author tends to be verbose, and could use the talents of a good editor, who would help clean up the repetition of thoughts, or the jumping around of points of view in one paragraph. There’s quite a few passages where characters will either observe, comment or say the same thing, as if the author was convincing himself of details. For example, Seymour’s eyeball pops out of his head when the stiletto heel goes through his eye. Constance gags when she sees it, Irving accidentally steps on it and crushes it without knowing, later she cleans it up and flushes it. Three different thoughts that essentially same the same thing. And as to the time issues, we flash back and forward within sentences - between Al-anon meetings and real time, between Seymour’s shrink and real time, between Constance’s memory and real time. Perhaps instead of using the italics in the midst of the novel to set apart points of view, it would make more sense to use them to set us apart in the different time frames within the novel. However, the writing is good, and would benefit from a more concrete story line, ala “Executioner’s Song” that has the feeling of inevitability about it when we arrive there.. It’s always difficult when one of the main characters of the story is a killer - since we have to spend much time in that character’s head, it’s not a pleasant place to be, and makes the rest of the story suffer - the worst example would be Tim Cahill’s “Buried Dreams” about John Wayne Gacy. However, this is not a non-fiction novel, and women hating protagonists are always a bit difficult to digest; it may make for a more interesting character but it’s not a pleasant place to be for the audience. That being said, his other characters, Constance and Irving are both enjoyable and deserve another visit.