The Bookmaker, by Michael J. Agovino
Publication Date: August 19, 2008
Format: Hardcover, 368 pages
Michael Agovino grew up in Co-op City, once called the biggest housing project in the country, in a melting pot of New York City ethnicities where his Italian American family is in the minority. The bookmaker of the title is his ever enterprising father, who makes extra money by being the man that small time gamblers can make bets with on the side, and whose up and down fortunes lead the family on a cyclical series of up and downs; poverty and eviction notices one minute and leisurely month long trips through European hot spots the next. All Michael’s mother has ever wanted to do is to have a house and to make a nice home for her husband and children, but she is constantly undermined by the husband who not only takes bets for other people, but goes on squander the potential earnings by making bets himself. The children are frequently caught between their parents’ competing thoughts, goals and desires.
The Bookmaker is an ambitious book, spanning four decades and reading more like a piece of investigative journalism than the memoir that it is. Rich in detail, it explores the ethnic identities of not only an Italian Americans in the neighborhood in East Harlem in the ’60’s, but also explores the dynamics of a racially and ethnically diverse housing project in the Bronx, as Jewish, Puerto Rican, African American and Italian American families all lived together.
Initially the intricate structure of the beginning of the story can make it a difficult one to follow. There are a wealth of people, jobs and family members to keep track of as the history of Agovino’s family is explored. The book starts off with his father fleeing the city as a young man because of money that he owes to various wise guys around town. He goes to D.C. where struggles to find his footing, and then when he has been away long enough that his debt is sufficiently resolved, he is called back to New York where the story picks up the vein of the Agovino’s grandparents and the extended families that shaped the lives of his parents. The stories are rich in observation and humor, and written in the spirit and the vernacular of the neighborhood. Questions are asked and answered within sentences, but it can take a minute to attribute this call and response to the correct family member’s pov. At this point the flavor of the storytelling was what kept me going on because I wasn’t always sure which stories belonged to whom.
Later when the narrative concentrates on the immediate Agovino family, the story gels and becomes a moving account of a marriage with lots of love and intense conflict as Agovino’s parents value different things in life. I felt for the mother who just wants to raise her children the best way that she can in an environment that never became a home for her, and then I empathized with the children who loved their parents but were caught between them. All of them had to live with the doubt and instability caused by their father’s unrecognized gambling addiction. The ups and the downs are subtly related to the reader but still painful and uncomfortable to witness. On a curious note, nothing is ever mentioned about Agovino dating or meeting anyone, even after he has finished college, started a job and is living on his own.
Another plus for me was the setting, NYC. I live reading and discovering new things about the city. I wet to one of the specialized science high schools discussed in the book, and I’ve had friends who lived in Co-Op City and have visited there several times. I guess either times change and/or perception is everything because I never thought of it as the projects, so it was really interesting to read the history and what newspapers said about it at the time. I thought they were middle class co-ops. Maybe because of the name. It is a vast and sprawling place, the buildings are the same, and all the streets loop around in circles. I think it would be way too confusing to go there alone.
Have you reviewed The Bookmaker? Please e-mail me your link or leave it in the comments, I’d love to have it here.