DiscoverHistorical Fiction

Swirled All the Way to the Shrub

By Tom Bentley

Loved it! 😍

A funny, compassionate, sometimes serious book - would have given it four and a half stars if I could!

Synopsis

The Roaring Twenties were bellowing along--until they weren't.

In a splintered bar in Boston, Pinky DeVroom, newspaperman, amateur cynic and would-be-novelist, clutches his sour Prohibition brandy and watches his world get sucked down into the vortex. Hope comes in the form of an astute, comely literary agent named Elfred. But hope can be its own form of hell.

Watch game Pinky twist, squirm and waffle while the world wobbles. The Depression and Prohibition's consequences are fundamental to the work, as are the appearances of some real-life figures such as Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare & Company and Alice Hamilton, the pioneering scientist. The effects of lead poisoning, the unfettered joys of the "banana messenger" and the glories of Telechron clocks also have their time in the sun. As do rigorous bartending practices and the perils of owning a hat.

But all those tributaries of the story return to Pinky: Through continued tests and failures, through the comradeship of good friends, through his own lacerations and partial healings, will he find fulfillment? Will those friends, a mysterious secret society, and the judicious prodding of the remarkable Doctor Alice Hamilton help him get on his feet—and not fall again?

The roaring twenties - I imagine - was a frivolous era, and Pinky de Vroom certainly fits into that image. He's a social columnist for the Post, and does nothing much but get drunk, eye up celebrities and...write his break-through novel. Initially I thought this novel was going to be a little too frothy, but I revised my opinion. Sure, the characters do all have very weird names - Unctual, anyone? - but once you get caught up in the plot, this becomes a charming feature. The love story between Pinky and his agent, Elfred, was sweet and believable. The side-plot involving Pinky's best friend the banana-minder brought a serious angle into the book - corporate greed and misbehaviour - and then Pinky himself takes up a seriously righteous cause. It was the mixture of 'heavy' and 'light' in the book that really pulled me in - it transformed the novel from a piece of delightful frothy romance - with no meaning beyond that - to something more meaty.


The use of language was fun and original, though sometimes a little over the top. Maybe just a tiny bit more restraint in verbiage, and just a little bit more tightness of plot, would have made me give the book five stars. But - I enjoyed it a lot.

Reviewed by

I'm an author but I also read a lot. I do especially like to read books by high quality indie authors, because you often get original and unconventional work which wouldn't have been picked up by the major publishers.

Synopsis

The Roaring Twenties were bellowing along--until they weren't.

In a splintered bar in Boston, Pinky DeVroom, newspaperman, amateur cynic and would-be-novelist, clutches his sour Prohibition brandy and watches his world get sucked down into the vortex. Hope comes in the form of an astute, comely literary agent named Elfred. But hope can be its own form of hell.

Watch game Pinky twist, squirm and waffle while the world wobbles. The Depression and Prohibition's consequences are fundamental to the work, as are the appearances of some real-life figures such as Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare & Company and Alice Hamilton, the pioneering scientist. The effects of lead poisoning, the unfettered joys of the "banana messenger" and the glories of Telechron clocks also have their time in the sun. As do rigorous bartending practices and the perils of owning a hat.

But all those tributaries of the story return to Pinky: Through continued tests and failures, through the comradeship of good friends, through his own lacerations and partial healings, will he find fulfillment? Will those friends, a mysterious secret society, and the judicious prodding of the remarkable Doctor Alice Hamilton help him get on his feet—and not fall again?

Mr. Pinky DeVroom, Oct 1929


Pinky DeVroom, in his cups, stared into his brandy. His lips appeared to be having a complex argument, flexing and jutting without a clear rhythm. The argument’s fulcrum was the removal of his characteristic sneer from those lips, but the pivot came to rest: the sneer won.

The sneer had never been shy of like company on Pinky’s face. But he had to try, didn’t he? You have to practice something to get good at it, correct? So, he’d been practicing various smiles—a winsome grin, a lopsided smirk, a publicity-shot starburst—for the past hour at the bar, but every effort made his face feel like a thing possessed. Blessedly, The Shrub had no mirror behind the bar—Pinky was sure his conjured rictuses made him look like he was being garroted with piano wire.

Pinky shot a glance around at the other patrons of The Shrub. Even though the groaning arm of Prohibition had snaked its clutching fingers around many a bottle, there were still many establishments willing to play for pay behind the drawn shade. Particularly when the monitoring authorities might be swizzling a tipple themselves, thought Pinky, seeing that a lieutenant from District D-3 was sitting at a table along with a big palooka with a three-jointed nose. Maybe a boxer. The big guy had five or six empty mugs of beer in front of him, with the lieutenant keeping pace with some undoubtedly sour gin.  

Pinky swiveled. There were a couple of Boston’s toffs ensconced at another table, slumming it in the lowly journalist’s bar that was The Shrub, but so lightly ensconced that their silk cravats screamed that they’d be leaving for higher callings soon. A heavily flapperized member of the demimonde atop a stool to his right, slanting on her way off said stool, her bobbed hair nearly longer than the short, glittery-gauzy red dress, she one more martini away from ruin. A man with gruesomely pomaded hair stood to her right, leaning toward her with large lips rubbery enough to lift her glass, with her holding it, from the counter.

Pinky shifted fully around to take in the whole of The Shrub’s barroom. The dark walls with their faded varnish, the once-elegant leather banquettes, the herringbone-patterned parquet floor, insulted by thousands of hardy souls with hard soles for sixty years. The crowd tonight was pretty composed, though it was early. He saw a couple of other newspapermen he knew, and gave them a tilt of his brandy glass. Paper pimps, he thought. And what does that make me?

He’d been the society columnist at the Herald for almost nine years. Boston had oodles of society. In Pinky’s time, he’d covered upcoming socialites, downgraded socialites, the charitable rich, the irritable rich, marriages made in heaven and marriages made on the rings of Saturn. He’d quoted viscounts at funerals, covered discounts at art auctions, and exposed miscounts of inherited riches. He’d newsprinted the highest levels of the social ladder, and the airy, netless heights of social climbing when the ladder fell away.

He felt soiled.

Not that he thought his novel would cleanse him, no. But at least it wasn’t his smothered little column in the Herald, three times a week, the cock crowing about the crowned (and empty) heads. That world was crabbed and stifling, glitter on rancid meat. The novel was a different world, where Pinky breathed a little easier.

His protagonist, the sensationally unreliable Malacong Dall, was an amateur pianist in Trieste. But his profession was burglary, at which he was woefully inept. Pinky rather admired thieves, but only those of some accomplishment, thus his ofttimes shabby treatment of Dall in the book. But Dall had a salesman’s smile, generous and easy. Pinky had selected a series of victims of that smile to people the book. Love came more naturally to Dall than burglary.

Pinky’s man Dall regularly fell down metaphorical elevator shafts, but always bounced. Pinky’s life needed some bounce.

Pinky often sought a bit of bounce in a bit of booze, but since he was going to have his first face-to-face meeting with his agent in less than an hour, the administration of another brandy might result in him crawling around on her office floor, or getting into an argument about Sacco and Vanzetti, or baying at her mooncalf face. Not that he knew if she had a mooncalf face. They’d only spoken over the phone, though it had been more than a few times. She was the fourth agent to whom he’d sent the manuscript, from one of the city’s most respectable agencies: Eckleburg’s, which had been shepherding pages between authors and publishing houses since Dickens’s time. 

But what kind of shepherding could come from a woman named Elfred Norcross? Elfred? Was that a father dispiritedly dubbing his newborn “Elfred” because he’d wanted a boy named Alfred? But she’d sounded very collected on the phone, with nary a misplaced fred in her discussion. Mislaid monikers aside, the meat of the matter was this: Apparently, after casting their line into many parts of the stream, Miss Norcross and Eckleburg’s had gotten a fish to bite. Some publisher was interested in doing what they do best: publishing. But not publishing in some neutral, objective sense, no: this discussion centered on publishing Pinky’s book. Gadzooks. 

It was for Norcross, dear Elfred, that Pinky had been practicing his smile. Dismal business. But he’d have to make a go of it. He could be half-human when he pulled upon his resources, especially when he’d baptized his brain with brandy. At this point in Pinky’s life, a little fortification was mandatory when he had to muster up a public face. Muster he did. 

Pinky had only a passing acquaintance with optimism, but this was a special occasion. The holidays were nigh—and a book, his book, might be published.

No doubt, 1930 was sure to be a banner year.

About the author

Tom Bentley is a business and travel writer, an essayist and the author of three novels and a book of short stories. view profile

Published on December 14, 2018

Published by

90000 words

Genre: Historical Fiction

Reviewed by

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