Staff Book Reviewer Jessica Maybury is a recent graduate of the MA in Writing programme from NUI, Galway, Ireland. Her work has appeared in Nth Word, Word Riot and Prick of the Spindle, among other places. Her Web site is jmaybury.blogspot.com.
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Kestin’s novel The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats is many things. It is funny, enlightening, thought-provoking. It pulls no punches. The research is impeccable, the atmosphere of the time (1960s New York City) is stylishly rendered, and the plot is reminiscent of the contemporary American short story. The novel seems to be a series of events in the narrator’s life; there is no overarching plot, as such; rather, it is a formless evocation of a time and a place. And a person.
The narrator, Russell Newhouse (Casanova), is a sex-addicted, twenty-year-old brainiac who finds himself embroiled in the underbelly of New York’s gangster world, introduced to him by Shushan (dubbed “Shoeshine” by the newspapers) Cats. To be honest I had no idea what the title meant until I began the book, which is something I liked about it.
Like the mysteriousness of the title, the reader is plunged into the world of the novel without preamble. It takes a while to get to grips with what is happening, which is always a plus. I prefer being dumped into the middle of the action rather than having to wade through a tedious back-story. Within minutes of the opening paragraph, it has the reader all agog to find out what is happening, and the furious pace of the novel is not something that lets up until the final lines. What you’re given is a page-turning experience quite unlike anything you might have experienced recently.
There are some hang-ups I have about it, however. The narrator never came to life for me—while the rest of the novel was a knock-out, I felt that Russell remained a cardboard cut-out for the length of the action, never redeeming himself through either action or dialogue. He seems caught in the idea of a character, never breaking out of the thin sketch of one.
All in all I’d give this a four out of five. There is an uneasy balance between the sketchy narrator and the star quality of the plot and other characters makes for interesting, at times nail-biting reading.
Official Dzanc Books Web Site