DiscoverContemporary Fiction

Though We Have No Merits

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Worth reading 😎

Spirituality Is The New Black - the spiritual and psychological journey of Zolly Berns set in a Chicago federal prison in the 1980s.

Synopsis

During the 1980s, the federal government experimented with criminal rehabilitation by incarcerating men and women together in park-like settings that mirrored life on the Street. When Zolly Berns, the middle-aged owner of a Chicago bar, refuses to give false evidence, the feds exert pressure by sending him to one of those prisons – the Federal Correctional Institution, Lexington, Kentucky. Zolly readily makes friends and handles the sexual encounters. But he also confronts challenges like those that led to his incarceration. Zolly must choose between his old ways and his return to his faith. Zolly’s comic exploration of the human condition also has a surprise in store. Can this hustler, who has always known all the angles, survive when he stumbles on one that cuts to the heart?

I picked up this book right after reading the blurb that reminded me of Orange Is A New Black, which I am a big fan of: the book is about the life of inmates in a low-security mixed genders prison. Apart from the general prison setting, I didn't really know what to expect from Though We Have No Merits, hence I went into it with an open mind. 


This book deals with the spiritual and psychological journey of inmate Zolly Berns, a Jewish man from Chicago. At the beginning of the book, Zolly is a bar owner, but this changes when he is incarcerated because he refuses to testify against some friends who hang around his bar to talk business. During his time in this federal prison, where the feds put him hoping this would pressure him to talk, Zolly re-discovers religion. He hadn't been religious for a long time and he finds that, during his time in prison, religion can help him make sense of why he is there and what should be his next steps. 


Despite the prison setting, this book lacks the character development and psychology that I would have expected. Although the inmates do deal with the temptations, boredom and feuds that you would expect in a prison, the book lacked any juicy information about why or for how long the other inmates were in the prison and whether they were going to manage to transform their lives upside down once their time in there was going to be over. It has to be said that the character of Zolly and his psychology were dealt with in-depth. The background theme of whether he was innocent or guilty animated the whole book, which I liked a lot and I think was not over-done in this book. 


The themes of crime and spirituality meshed perfectly in this book. In fact, Zolly turned to law and religion, both from friends' advice and by praying, to understand who was in the wrong and what he was comfortable doing to return to normal life. Ultimately, during all his time spent in prison, Zolly reflects whether personal truth or self-interest is more important to him. He does this in multiple ways but the struggle is ongoing all throughout his incarceration. The constant duality of this character and his need to stick with his decision once he's made one is what made Zolly so interesting. 


Overall, I thought the themes in the book were great and I liked how the story made me reflect on the character of Zolly and his past and future actions. The book had the downside that, apart from Zolly and his spiritual and psychological journey, the reader didn't get to know about the life story of the other characters i.e. Zolly's friends in prison. I would recommend this book to someone interested in 1980s Chicago-related fiction, because of its historical point of view, but I wouldn't recommend it to someone just interested in a prison or a crime narrative.  

Reviewed by

I am a neuroscience student but I have always been a passionate reader and I have read many different book genres. I also write and have done for a very long time. I would definitely say reading and writing are two of my favourite activities, and I don't think this will change anytime soon.

Synopsis

During the 1980s, the federal government experimented with criminal rehabilitation by incarcerating men and women together in park-like settings that mirrored life on the Street. When Zolly Berns, the middle-aged owner of a Chicago bar, refuses to give false evidence, the feds exert pressure by sending him to one of those prisons – the Federal Correctional Institution, Lexington, Kentucky. Zolly readily makes friends and handles the sexual encounters. But he also confronts challenges like those that led to his incarceration. Zolly must choose between his old ways and his return to his faith. Zolly’s comic exploration of the human condition also has a surprise in store. Can this hustler, who has always known all the angles, survive when he stumbles on one that cuts to the heart?

BOOK ONE CHICAGO, 1958, NOISE

THE BOY WHO WAS FORMERLY SOLOMON BERNSTEIN TEETERED

at the edge of the living room like a mourner chanting the Kaddish, bobbing and weaving in response to the breath of his father, David Berns, who was asleep beneath the windows. The boy weighed the risk. If he glided across the carpet, he might retrieve the book before his father awakened. If he failed, he faced the prospect of another tirade against his bar mitzvah. Zolly Berns, who would have been Bernstein if his father hadn’t started up with the goyim, who’d traded Solly for Zolly by zippering his mouth at the sign of a secret, decided on taking the chance. It was either that or allow his father to focus on the Hebrew book when he awakened from his nap.

The room was at the front of the building, at the head of a hallway that traveled the length of the apartment. It was like a railroad car that had derailed years before, when David Bernstein had abandoned his name and his family to lead a life on the road, making them just his rest stop on weekends, a place for turning around. The fireplace wall was at Zolly’s left as he entered, its electric hearth glowing under the red glass chips that passed for coal. The radiator that provided the heat was at the far side of the room, under windows that faced both the street and the snow that had started off the winter. Outside, every parking space was taken, except for those blocked off by brooms and folding chairs, one of which marked the place for David’s Ford.

David was lying prone on the couch that hid the radiator from view, still dressed in the suit of a salesman. He never changed with the season, only by the week, and then to an identical outfit: a four-season suit and five-eyelet shoes. He could pass for an accountant when walking the streets. On the job, his hair was slicked back by a half dozen squeezes of VO5. On the couch, his hair was askew, smearing grease across the cushions, and he was honking snores as loud as the bells on the gates warning of an approaching train. You could bang on a pot a foot from his head; Dad’s eyes would stay as tight as his wallet.

Mom was cooking the Shabbat dinner, an addiction from her childhood, but Dad didn’t curse, provided she lit the candles out of his sight and left the wine within reach. The book was the challenge, on the table where it was always in reach if Mom made him practice. His friends’ parents had coffee-table books setting off plastic-covered couches and Leon Uris novels, but the Berns residence settled for cot­ton slipcovers and the Hebrew book. If it was out of sight when Dad came home, he paid the same attention to Zolly he gave to the week­end papers, which remained unopened until the garbage pickup on Monday. Even at home, Dad had his mind on the road. Zolly’s family was different from that of most of the kids in his class, whose fathers took the el to work and then came home for dessert and Milton Berle on their round-screen TVs. Dad insisted that Zolly was lucky he had a radio. He had surprised them this evening by arriving before it was dark, before Zolly had a chance to retrieve the book and hide it beneath his pillow. If it was there when Dad woke up, he would demand that Zolly perform, as though Zolly was trying out a nightclub act where his father could watch and heckle. Dad didn’t care about Zolly’s grades, had never met a Boy Scout, and forgot every birthday. But for a guy who wasn’t Orthodox, David applauded ritual. Here was how the weekends went. The smell of the soup and the chicken reminded Dad he was hungry and goosed him up from the couch and into the dining room in a tie with the arrival of dinner. Halfway through the bowl, Dad would always look up, say, “You ready?” take a few more sips, then say, “Grandpa shouldn’t be disappointed,” and nod at Mom as though to show respect for her father. Which of course was a lie. Respect had been abandoned in Minnesota, where Grandpa Sam resided.

“I practice every day,” Zolly would say, which was usually true, to the credit of Mom, who wanted it for Grandpa Sam as well as for herself. “Grandpa says I married a goy,” was Becky’s answer to Zolly’s complaints. She meant to prove her father mistaken.

Tonight, Dad added to his usual pronouncements. “This is your chance to hit the jackpot.” He drew his metaphors from his current line of work.

Leave it to Dad to dwell on his job. He spent his weekdays selling slot machines to the Kiwanis, Lions, Elks, Masons, Rotarians, and all the other Gentile clubs within an eight-hour drive of home. If he gave Zolly a tip of ten percent of the smiles he gave to the goyim, of the cracks on the back with the open palm that declared it was all in fun, of the five grins a minute and laughter at all of their jokes, Zolly would have hidden that treasure under his pillow in place of his Hebrew book. Instead, he had to settle for a wink that supposedly showed his father didn’t mean it when he said, “You want to make your Grandpa proud of his bar mitzvah boy.”

Great reason to kill a couple of hours a day reading Hebrew, chanting hymns, and droning his haftorah. Zolly would have been happy if his father ever gave him a sliver of the attention he gave the gifts that would come from Grandpa Sam and the rest of their relatives during the celebration. Instead, Dad was so hung up on Zolly’s getting it right that he had arranged for Mr. Kleinman to come Monday through Thursday to suffer through Zolly cracking across the tropes that measured the melodies of the prayers while he prayed to God off-key. God was one subject neither Dad, nor Mom, nor Kleinman ever discussed, except in a biblical sense. Zolly himself ignored what he was chanting—not difficult, since he detested read­ing the Hebrew. He could just as well have been praying to Grandpa Sam as to God.

“Learn anything new?” Waking up, Dad swung his heels off the couch and onto the floor, sitting up with the momentum. What was left of his hair was as gray as his face, which came from a career composed of cigarettes and scotch and sodas in his customers’ places of business. “Not that any of it counts. The real world doesn’t talk Hebrew.” He moved his hand across his face, denying any expression.

“Mom says it’s important.” The words hung in the space between him and his father. His parents could argue on their own. They didn’t need him to ring the bell. Zolly sidled toward the table, keeping his eyes on his father. The book was only steps away, face down on the glass, half-hidden by the Chicago Tribune and shadowed by the wine. With any luck, his father hadn’t noticed. If he had, his eyes might have filed it away as clutter.

Dad approached Zolly, exuding the smell of stale cigars and day-old whiskey. Zolly’s mother had demanded that David buy a second suit. You couldn’t count on the Saturday cleaner getting it bagged in the middle of the weekend. But when he came home, his suits always smelled the same. The jacket showed a week’s worth of creases and the stains of eating out. The lapel sported the pin of the Kiwanis or the Masons, Zolly wasn’t sure—wherever Dad had finished earlier that day. The lines around Dad’s mouth and eyes all pointed down, as they did whenever he wasn’t selling.

“You didn’t answer my question.” His father sniffed.

Zolly sniffed, as well. Dinner wasn’t ready yet. His luck. His father must be smelling him. “I’m supposed to stick to my assignment,” Zolly said. Which was about bringing in the harvest. The Israelites had been farmers back then, poor people who lived off sheep. Zolly tried to picture his father kicking shit off his heels in a field, but all he could manage was a man whose shoes needed a shine after stubbing his toes at the base of the bars where he bought the goyim their drinks. If the Jews had waited a couple thousand years before writing it down, Zolly might be singing about Johnnie Walker Red instead of the sea that parted for passage.

“So tell me your assignment.” His father cocked his head as though he cared, as though the answer changed from week to week instead of being dependent on Zolly’s birthday and the synagogue’s schedule. He shrugged, stretched, and then his attention strayed to the painting that hung over the fake fireplace, an oil by an anonymous artist.

“If you paid attention, you’d remember.” Zolly was tired of the weekly conversations with the same questions and the same answers.

Dad’s fixation in getting the answer he wanted was what made him a successful salesman.

His father grabbed Zolly’s arm with a grip stronger than Hank Sauer, the Cubs’ left fielder, who could crush an orange into pulp with his hand. Some nights, when Dad was away, Zolly would close his eyes and pretend he was at the game his father had taken him to as a child. But that scene was harder to fantasize about when Dad was at home, squeezing Zolly’s arm and the blood from his dreams.

“I had a rough week. Don’t give me any lip.” His father released Zolly’s arm and moved to the other end of the room, where he leaned on the baby grand. Every living room on the block had one. Either that or a spinet, if the family couldn’t afford any better. You didn’t need to know how to play one. You didn’t even need to know how to hum. Even if the residents were all amputees whose tongues were torn out, they had to have a piano. It took the place of a college degree and familiarity with the classics. The scene worked best when you didn’t pay attention to where your elbow rested, which in this apartment involved David Berns—formerly Bernstein—leaning against the Baldwin, while continuing his inquisition. “Did you learn it any better? Kleinman costs twenty bucks an hour.”

Not that it really mattered. Dad regarded each twenty as a down payment for bar mitzvah gifts to come. Even considering eight months with the private tutor, the total cost would still be less than a thousand dollars, with a lot more coming back in return. That explained where Dad was leaning. Grandpa Sam alone would cover the balance Dad still owed on the baby grand.

“Mr. Kleinman says I should learn it by heart,” Zolly said.

“They going to take it away?”

“In case I lose my place.”

“Which is going to be a part-time job as soon as this nonsense is over.” Dad never tired of talking about his time stocking shelves at the grocery store, starting when he was twelve.

“Your sales down this trip?” If Zolly got him talking business, Dad might forget about the Hebrew.

David pushed off the Baldwin, rubbed his eyes, looked down at his hands, and blinked, as though surprised that his palms were empty, but he didn’t give an answer at once. That wasn’t like him. He never searched for words. He could say whatever the occasion required—a banker reluctant to return a deposit but always with ready cash in the till.

“‘Down’ is an understatement. My sales were nonexistent.” Dad moved his eyes from his palms to the recollection floating overhead like the wisp of smoke that would have been present if the fireplace had been real. “My customers are afraid of getting hurt. They had visits from the boys.”

Approaching thirteen and the son of a slot machine salesman, Zolly knew the shorthand. Calling them “boys” made the gangsters resemble a pack of kids playing pranks, but Zolly had also been to the movies. You got involved, you went to jail or wound up dead, sometimes both, like Jackie Solomon’s dad, who had been an accountant for the mob until the day he was shot in the parking lot alongside his El Dorado, just because he’d substituted a decimal in place of a comma. The books always had to balance. What Zolly couldn’t figure out was how any of this related to his father, a man who worked on his own and bought and sold for cash. Zolly swallowed and worked to match the expression his father usually showed, that try-to-read-me-but-don’t-kid-yourself ­that-you-can face. No way would he show fear to his Dad. Even eight years later, he could remember their trip to the zoo, the summer day Zolly had hidden between his father’s legs upon encountering the tigers, and Dad had pushed him away.

“They’re giving you competition?” Zolly said. He could straddle the truth as well as his parents. He knew the opening credits and all the dialogue from eavesdropping outside the kitchen when they thought he was asleep and spent their weekends debating their odds of survival. Whoever controlled the gambling was moving beyond the suburbs, having stuffed slots into as many saloons as the police would overlook.

Dad was finally looking away from the cracks in the ceiling, focus­ing on Zolly. “You’re just a kid. Pay attention to your lessons.”

“I’m about to be a bar mitzvah.” Zolly could handle whatever it was.

“David, what are you saying?” Becky had arrived in the archway be­tween the dining and living rooms, which were almost equal in size. The apartment dated back to the twenties, when the building had been constructed. In those days, they must have lived from party to party, moving back and forth from cocktails, to dinner, to after-dinner drinks by the fireplace while the table was cleared, then back to their seats for dessert, the host or hostess pressing their feet on the buttons under the table to summon the maid. It might have even been a butler, Zolly couldn’t be sure. The swinging door from the dining room led to the so-called but­ler’s pantry, which was the buffer between where they ate the food and the kitchen where it was cooked. These days, it was Mom who did the cooking and the serving, between sitting down to eat herself. Tonight, she had dinner on the table, the matzo balls floating beneath the steam that drifted above the bowls like smoke from the leaves of a curbside fire.

“They won’t push me around.” His father was proving his point by standing as straight as when he started out every Monday. He was wearing the brown suit, which meant it was an even-numbered week, the jacket misshapen from his nap, tie open at the neck and his belt unbuckled, but only a moment away from making a sale if the occasion arose.

“You’re frightening the boy,” Mom said. But she herself was shaking while standing in the doorway to the dining room, the color missing from her cheeks as though the stove had drained her heat away in order to cook the broth. She bunched the bottom of her apron up against her breasts. A photo of Mom and Dad was in a frame on top of the Baldwin. The only practical function the piano served was to display an array of scenes from happier times. The one that was Zolly’s favorite showed Mom and Dad as newlyweds—or so they seemed to him, as Zolly wasn’t in the picture. It must have been before his father lost the business he had owned when he’d married Zolly’s mother, Becky— with Grandpa Sam’s reluctant blessing—when they could afford the three-bedroom apartment in the six-flat building. Dad was looking at Becky in the picture. Zolly imagined how things had once been. When Zolly was frightened by his parents’ weekly arguments about the danger, he would focus on the picture and imagine how things had been.

“I won’t walk away from all I’ve worked for,” Dad said. “You think I enjoy a life on the road? So I’m not your father retired in Minnesota and living off the interest on my bonds. It isn’t much, but this busi­ness is mine. I mean to keep it.” It was like any other time David put a string of sentences together. It was the money that got him going. “I worked hard for those accounts. I won’t give them up without a fight.”

“David, these men have guns.”

“I’m not talking about a shoot-out.”

Mom was moving toward him, the soup growing cold on the table. “Find a business to buy. We have enough. Do something safe.”

“Everything I’ve made I put into buying more machines.”

She rushed to him, exchanging the bottom of her apron for the folds of his sleeves. “What were you contemplating? Competing with Las Vegas?”

David flicked Becky away. “It made sense if they minded their own business.”

“Let my father help.”

The chances of that were as good as Dad kicking off his shoes each night when he got home before flopping on the couch. David managed to be a room away whenever Becky called her father. Zolly wasn’t sure whether that was due to his father’s envy of Sam’s success or because Dad resented the Hebrew. If it was up to his father, there would be no bar mitzvah, even if it meant they remained in debt on the Baldwin.

“I intend to get even any way I can,” Dad said.

“You just said you’re not going up against them.”

“That doesn’t mean I can’t go to the police.”

When Zolly’s parents got married, Mom had tried to keep kosher for at least a week, but Dad kept bringing home the pig. Ham, bacon, pork chops—you name it—corrupted the kitchen with tref. The way Mom told the story, it had to do with Dad’s misguided appetite, but Zolly sensed a connection with keeping Grandpa Sam’s visits to a mini­mum. Either way, it added up to a house where almost anything passed across their tongues except mention of the law. In a house of tref, the cops weren’t kosher. Now, Dad was breaking the rules.

“You think the police will help when what you were doing was illegal?” Mom said. “They’re going to put them away and put you back in business?”

His father was looking at the carpet where he had tracked in the mud and snow from the street. Mom waited until Mondays to clean it. He said, “I know that’s too late. But I warned them what I would do.”

“You . . . warned them?” His mother stroked the words behind her, gulping air between them. “You’re killing me.”

“I told them I would do it as soon as I got back.”

“David. You’re tired. Wait until tomorrow.”

“I shouldn’t have taken the nap.” He turned to Zolly. “Save my space outside after I leave.”

Becky said, “Your dinner.”

Friday was the one night they ate together. Weekdays, Dad was away. Saturday night, Mom and Dad went out as though they still were dating. Sundays, Dad went to bed early, getting rest before his trips. Friday remained special, even though Dad ignored any connection with religion. But tonight, the chicken would forever go uneaten.

They heard the bang of the door as David slammed it shut behind him. It was quiet for five minutes, with the silence broken only by Zolly’s mother’s sobs, before they heard the bigger bang from in front of their building, followed by the sound of their windows exploding into the room, and the feel of the glass as it splintered their faces.


About the author

I'm a life-long Chicagoan. I've worked at law, business and real estate. Now, I get to write! My fiction has been published in Origins Journal, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Akashic Books' Mondays Are Murder series, Chicago Literati, Front Porch Review, bird's thumb, Mash and elsewhere. view profile

Published on June 23, 2020

100000 words

Worked with a Reedsy professional 🏆

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Reviewed by

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