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First Fiction

The Sucker’s Kiss

Alan Parker

Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s: 352 pp., $23.95

The British film director Alan Parker (“The Commitments,” “Mississippi Burning”) tries his hand at fiction in this rollicking tale of a San Francisco pickpocket and his picaresque journey through early 20th century America. The cutpurse in question is Tommy Moran, an Irish kid with a droopy left eye and magic hands able to probe strangers’ pockets without detection. As Tommy describes his talent, “I could slide in and out of a sucker’s purse like melted butter.” Left a virtual orphan after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, he zigzags back and forth across the country, landing in such archetypal settings as Rudolph Valentino’s wake, the Kentucky Derby, a Jack Dempsey fight, Niagara Falls and Coney Island. But much of “The Sucker’s Kiss” (the title alludes to an especially challenging face-to-face pickpocket maneuver) reads like a mash note to San Francisco. Parker re-creates the 1906 quake with the imagination of a brainy school kid fascinated by the rush of history.

In subsequent years (the novel takes us up to the Depression), we discover the city’s ethnic nooks and crannies: Tommy’s best friend is Sammy Liu, who works in one of his uncle’s hoodoo joints in Mah Fong Alley and grows up to be an accomplished gangster. There are the Italian households and groceries of North Beach, teeming with laughter, kids and fagioli beans. And then there’s Napa, where Tommy falls for an Italian-Armenian beauty named Effie and tries to lead a straight life amid dappled hillsides and a faltering Prohibition-era wine industry. Can he do an honest day’s work? Is there any point, when Wall Street fat cats are thieves too?

This is an entertaining, if overheated, allegory of American avarice. Capitalism is pickpocketry, sleight of hand, a ripping yarn. True to his cinematic roots, Parker juices up the message with murders, mob activity, bootlegging, crooked priests, pornography, infidelity and the like to make clear, as Tommy puts it, “what a screwed-up place America had become since Prohibition.” Parker might lack his hero’s buttery touch, but, like Tommy, he has a remarkable flair for getting away with stuff.

*

Garrett in Wedlock

Paul Mandelbaum

Berkley: 304 pp., $14, paper

Garrett, the average-guy hero of Paul Mandelbaum’s affecting novel, is a minor bureaucrat in the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Enhancement in Baltimore. He considers himself a white-bread, heritage-free fellow, whose very features “were a kind of Americanized puree: a Cheez Whiz of a face.” Yet there’s nothing nondescript about the life he marries into when he becomes the third husband of a loving, complicated woman named May-Annlouise and stepfather to her two kids, each from a different previous spouse: Lynn is the daughter of Parni, an Indian Muslim who turns out to have had a secret wife back home; Turpin is the precocious son of Tor, a Scandinavian anthropologist and adventurer. You soon realize that May- Annlouise aches for the normalcy Garrett represents and that he strives, against discouraging odds, to keep delivering.

It isn’t easy. Turpin adores his father, who shows up on May-Annlouise’s and Garrett’s doorstep only to announce that he’s dying of kuru, a rare neurological affliction traceable to the human brain he ate on an expedition to New Guinea. How do you compete with that? The bereft Turpin, naturally, turns to sarcasm, Ecstasy, car theft and a stunt on Lynn’s wedding day that nearly kills him. Lynn, meanwhile, goes to India to visit Parni and comes home as a Koran-quoting zealot ready to assent to an arranged marriage (which Turpin’s acrobatics -- he falls off the roof of the house -- thankfully interrupt). Amid the often hilarious domestic Sturm und Drang, Garrett and May-Annlouise cope with fertility therapy, yoga classes gone awry, Turpin’s convalescence, Turpin’s halfhearted affair with a workmate, and Lynn’s menstrual performance art. (She apparently abandons Mohammed in favor of Karen Finley.) This is a fittingly complex portrait of a family that, in its branching byways, resembles what families really are. As a title, “Garrett in Wedlock” reflects Mandelbaum’s crafty, affectionate irony; Garrett may well have gotten himself locked in, but marriage is no straitjacket.

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