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Button Man


Button Man

Approximately 20 million immigrants came to the United States between 1880 and 1920. Among them was Andrew Gross' grandfather, a proud man who leapt from the mean streets of Brownsville, Brooklyn, directly into the garment industry at the ripe age of 12. He battled both the unionization of his company and the mobsters behind it --- primarily Louis "Lepke" Buchalter and his henchman, Jacob “Gurrah” Shapiro. He proudly bore the scars from the knifing he suffered at the hands of Shapiro. If the name Buchalter rings a bell, it might be because he is the only major mob boss ever to have been executed by state or federal authorities for his crimes.

BUTTON MAN is a work of fiction that is fully infused with the story above. Gross introduces readers to the Rabishevsky brothers: Morris, Sol and Harry. Morris, the character based on his grandfather and the novel’s main protagonist, is the youngest but most driven member of the family. He is forced to drop out of school at the age of 12 to help support his family by taking a job in the garment industry. He convinces the owner, Mr. Kaufman, to take a chance on him, promising to be a fast learner. Morris is true to his word; now working under the abbreviated name Morris Raab, he begins his historic rise from the cutting room floor to owner of his own dress firm.

Morris is the only member of his family born in the States. He remembers the first time he laid eyes on Central Park and was overwhelmed by how green it was --- it may very well have been another planet from his Lower East Side beginnings. One day, Morris is walking home with a bagful of groceries when he comes upon a card game in an alley being run by local toughs Louis Buchalter and Jacob Shapiro. Morris stands up to their threats and attempted shakedown of him for protection money in letting him receive safe passage. Morris earns much respect that day from Buchalter, but knows deep down that this is just the first of many fateful meetings between himself and the young thug.

"BUTTON MAN sometimes reads like a thriller, while at other times, it feels like you're experiencing actual history being dramatized on the pages in front of you. The seamless blending of fictional and real characters infuses the book with pure credibility..."

As Morris rises in the garment business, the same happens for Buchalter and his associates in the crime world as they would later be known as Murder Incorporated. The day comes when Morris and Sol open their own dress firm, taking with them the years of experience Morris gained from working his way up from the bottom in local garment factories. They call their company Raab Brothers and extend an offer to Harry to join them, but Harry has decided to go a different route, aligning himself with the local mobsters and taking menial jobs with them.

On one occasion, Morris and his best friend, Irv, go to a local club and engage in conversation with some young women. However, they know they don't stand a chance since they are mere “rubes” and these are uptown girls looking for the arm of a successful guy.  One of them, Ruthie, stays behind and shows clear interest in Morris. This becomes the story of how they met, as the two eventually marry and start their own family. Meanwhile, Irv is pursuing a law degree that will lead to his crossing paths legally with Morris down the road as their relationship quickly becomes more complicated.

Raab Brothers grows, expanding to a second location in Kingston, NY. Their success draws the eye of the union that is run by none other than Louis Buchalter. Many of Morris' friends and business colleagues have gone union --- some by their own choice, but most due to the strong arm of Buchalter's cronies, which include maiming and murder to get them to join. Morris meets with the union organizer but remains steadfast in his decision to keep his company union free. More importantly for him, he does not want Buchalter getting his hooks into the family company, which now includes Harry, who has agreed to take on a small role.

It is at this point that the suspense becomes almost unbearable as you turn each page dreading the inevitable battle that it seems Morris just cannot win. Is Harry really on board, or is he still acting as a “button man” or hired gun for Buchalter and the mob? When Harry is involved, unwittingly, as the getaway driver during the hit on infamous mobster Dutch Schultz, the situation really gets serious. Meanwhile, Morris is approached by Irv, who is now an attorney working for special prosecutor Thomas Dewey. They meet, and Dewey does all he can to guarantee Morris' protection if he agrees to testify against Buchalter and the mob.

Things are just so complicated with everything going on that Morris is incapable of making a decision. His non-choice will have dire and deadly consequences for himself, his family and his company. Whether or not you are aware of what happens next historically, you simply must allow yourself to strap in and go along for the ride Andrew Gross is taking you on.

BUTTON MAN sometimes reads like a thriller, while at other times, it feels like you're experiencing actual history being dramatized on the pages in front of you. The seamless blending of fictional and real characters infuses the book with pure credibility while at the same time utilizing all of Gross' experience as a bestselling novelist. Speaking of Gross, the transformation he has gone through from thriller author to writer of some of the best historical fiction on the market has been remarkable. More importantly, he has embraced his Jewish heritage and put it at the forefront of his recent works. The result has been amazing novels about the Second World War, and now the immigrant experience in NYC from the start of the 19th century through the early days before WWII.

Mazel tov, Andrew, as BUTTON MAN is another winner and one of the most engaging reads of the year.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on September 20, 2018

Button Man
by Andrew Gross