“Father Divine’s Bikes” is a fantastically written and utterly enthralling book by a very talented author. It is at its best when a slice-of-life cultural expose, and for the most part this is what it is. Set in wartime 1940s New Jersey, it portrays a melting pot of immigrant culture, with all the racial segregation, paranoia and employment resentment which comes with that. The racial language is raw and offensive – there is certainly no whitewashed rewriting of history here, and the book is all the better for it. The blacks, Jews, Irish, Polish and Italians try desperately to carve their place in the slums and tenements of Newark city, in heart-inflating attempts to better their lives against hardship and indignity, with that age-old tragic foe of hope taunting them. Bassett doesn’t attempt to tell it like it wasn’t, with some politically correct paintbrush - all the associated stereotypes are here, including pimps, corrupt cops, mobsters, refugees and extortionate landlords. The large ensemble cast of characters doesn’t so much grow with each chapter, as expand organically, like a soap. It is a masterclass in character development, and even the most hateful and divisive of them become, to some extent, endearing.
For me, the book does tail off a little in the final third, in which it becomes less development-orientated, and the simple plotline starts to bring the characters together; at this point is where it starts to evolve into plain pulp fiction, uniting Mario Puzo and Elmore Leonard. Definitely better when it is creating the characters’ backstories, the storyline (of kids running numbers for criminals) is perhaps a touch thin – so much so as to seem incidental. Still, the tension is thick, and as mob culture starts to have a discernible influence into the lives of good, decent and downtrodden people, the air of menace underlying this book does become more tangible – I found myself biting my nails, nervously concerned about which of the poor, likeable souls the inevitable tragedy was imminently bound to befall. To tell the truth, I thought a racial flashpoint was brewing throughout, and was a touch disappointed with the final direction; I maybe felt, in a way, that all the work Bassett invested in the characters was left unjustified.
Although this is an author of clear pedigree, with a wonderful, engaging style, I did find a couple of issues with the flow, perhaps caused by misplaced commas and missing scene breaks, which could have clarified what, at times, are slightly confusing events. Another confusing aspect is the fact that many of the important events in this book occur off-page, and are only mentioned in dialogue. This is compounded a touch by the non-linear timeline and large cast. But, that said, while it could do with a polish, this doesn’t harm the book in any notable way, and it is otherwise incredibly well composed.
Finally, a bit of an enigma: at the risk of adding a spoiler, I’m not sure if Father Divine actually did make an appearance (there is a brief scene in the opening chapters) or even whether he referred to is the real Father Divine (I admit: I had to Google him), a fictional version, or the crooks metaphorically using his name and reputation. This is not a bad thing – indeed, I quite like the ambiguity of this. Not that it really matters, to tell the truth – “Father Divine’s Bikes” is top quality, utterly engrossing writing, and I highly recommend picking up a Steve Bassett book if you get the chance.
In : Book Reviews
Tags: new-jersey war slice-of-life immigrants steve-bassett american-history