Review: Button Man by Andrew Gross
By John ValeriSeptember 18, 2018
Button Man by Andrew Gross is a stirring story of a Jewish family brought together in the dawn of the women’s garment business and torn apart by the birth of organized crime in New York City in the 1930s.
New York Times-bestselling author Andrew Gross is no stranger to taking risks. He spent 20 years in the garment industry before switching gears to pursue publishing. In a fortuitous turn of events, James Patterson invited him to collaborate, and five number-one bestsellers followed. Then, Gross went solo, writing a string of critically acclaimed suburban thrillers between 2007’s The Blue Zone and One Mile Under (2015). Yet despite his success, the author sought a new creative canvas with The One Man (2016) and The Saboteur (2017)—World War II-era historical thrillers that drew inspiration from his own family heritage. His newest, the aptly titled Button Man, continues in that vein.
As the story opens, readers are introduced to the Rabinowitz family—including brothers Morris, Sol, and Harold. The children of Jewish immigrants, they live in the rough-and-tumble of pre-war New York’s Lower East Side, where they are forced to grow up quickly in the wake of their father’s sudden death. To help support his family, 12-year-old Morris drops out of school and becomes an apprentice to a garment cutter in a clothing factory; Sol attends college to become an accountant, and Harry—scarred by his involvement in childhood tragedy—falls under the influence of a neighborhood bully turned mobster, Louis “Lepke” Buchalter. Morris, despite his wise mouth and presumptuous nature, quickly proves himself indispensable to the operation, learning the tricks of the trade and eventually opening his own business—a livelihood that is threatened when the mafia sets their sights on the unions that control the clothing industry.
Of course, the stakes are as much personal as they are professional, as Sol joins Morris in the business while Harry remains a holdout, finding it difficult to turn his back on the mobsters who have offered him a different type of brotherhood. And while Buchalter and his boys initially show Morris leniency as a result of this alliance, their tolerance grows thin when Morris takes up the torch of his fellow tradesmen, who have been trivialized and terrorized by the mob’s infiltration of their operations—often resulting in financial ruin, physical abuse, and intimidation (including death), or both. Consequently, allegiances collide, pitting business against business and brother against brother. It’s a bloody reckoning—and one that will make or break families and friendships.
With the requisite thriller elements firmly intact, Gross sets his eyes on a much larger story. At its heart is a sweeping, multi-generational tale about the pursuit of the America dream and the sacrifices that are often required to become a success—one that recalls his grandfather’s own coming-of-age in the clothing industry. Very much a portrait of New York City in the 1920s and ‘30s, it captures the hope and turbulence of the era, which was amplified by the rise of organized crime; further, the author exposes the influence of the Jewish American mafia, which actually outmaneuvered its Italian counterpart then—a fact that has been largely obscured by history. And real characters (Buchalter, Dutch Schultz, Thomas Dewey, etc.) walk among fictional ones, lending the narrative an overall sense of realism and gravity that cannot be denied.
Button Man may just be Andrew Gross’s most ambitious and accomplished novel to date. It’s one that shows the true scope of his storytelling talents, melding fact with fiction as history comes breathtakingly alive on the page for readers, who are reminded that our collective past is every bit as immediate and pressing as the complexities of contemporary life.