Best known for his nonfiction work (including Cod and Salt), writer Mark Kurlansky tries his hand at fiction in this debut novel, a tale that teems with life from the first page. Boogaloo on 2nd Avenue: A Novel of Pastry, Guilt, and Music brings readers to New York's Lower East Side in 1988, when gentrification of this multiethnic neighborhood was just beginning.

Kurlansky plops the reader right into the heart of the 'hood, trotting out a cast of vividly drawn characters including protagonist Nathan Seltzer, the rather hapless owner of the Meshugaloo Copy Center who is heading right into a midlife crisis (or, as his precocious three-year-old daughter Sarah puts it, midwife crisis ). Agonize along with the claustrophobic Nathan, a nebbishy Jew married to the Mexican-Jewish Sonia, as he ponders an affair with pastry-maker Karoline, who just might have Nazi roots. At the same time, Nathan's father Harry is working with Chow Mein Vega, the creator of 1960s dance sensation The Yiddish Boogaloo (an irresistible ditty including such lyrics as Go to the deli, and you will find, corned beef, pastales, and pastrami on rye ), to stage a comeback of the dusty hit. And with a Summer of Sam-like twist, Kurlansky also works in a murderous drug addict who is haunting the area.

Among Boogaloo's original touches are a series of roughly drawn illustrations of neighborhood scenes and a section titled Twelve Recipes from the Neighborhood. Here you get humor-infused recipes for culinary treats named for characters, including Bernhardt Moellen's Ischler Krapferln, Mrs. Rodriguez's Nuyorican Cream Pasteles, Karoline's Kugelhopf and Sal A's Caponata. Kurlansky's writing is vivid and crackling with wit, and although a few of his characters are insufferable, he draws them with humorous affection. Hopefully this is not his last foray into the realm of fiction.

Rebecca K. Stropoli writes from New York City.

 

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