In the years surrounding World War II, a gritty Italian-American waterfront community in the shadow of New York City known as Narrows Gate is home to brutal wise guys, a gifted crooner hell bent on success and two young friends who have no idea what the future holds — or how it can rip them apart. Vivid characters driven by demons and desire clash with gut-wrenching force in Jim Fusilli’s violent, visceral novel as crime, rank ambition and the promise of the American dream battle for the souls of Bebe Marsala, the talented but compromised crooner; the happy-go-lucky Sal Benno, who is trapped by the mob; and Leo Bell, a newly minted member of the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA. A powerful epic in the spirit of such groundbreaking works as Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and Budd Schulberg’s On the Waterfront, Fusilli’s saga races to Hollywood, Havana, Las Vegas and the battlefields of Sicily before it explodes in an unexpected and unforgettable conclusion.
Some words about the author: Jim Fusilli, the Pop and Rock Music Critic for the Wall Street Journal, is the author of the critically-acclaimed Terry Orr crime series, among other books. He was the project editor and a contributing writer for the Audible Original projects The Chopin Manuscript and The Copper Bracelet. He was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, a place very much like Narrows Gate.
Also, readers writes the following reviews about this book:
“Narrows Gate is a long and complex novel that gets its name from a once largely Sicilian section of New York City. Running from the early 1920’s and traversing The Great Depression, World War II, and the onset of the McCarthy Era in the early 1950’s, James Fusilli skillfully presents three loosely connected stories of growing up and coming of age in an increasingly diverse land of real and imagined, legitimate and illegitimate, mundane and exotic opportunities. All three stories have their inauspicious beginnings in working class homes in Narrows Gate, then diverge, and eventually reconnect in unlikely but plausible ways that are all but impossible to foresee.
Sal Benno’s family owned a small grocery store, and his father was routinely humiliated, roughed up, and shaken down by a brutal Irish cop who represents the incursion of non-Sicilian ethnic groups into the neighborhood. (Anyone who thinks this an unlikely set of circumstances, read The Savage City by T.J. English.) Even as a pre-adolescent, Sal was becoming a genial, street-smart kid with a well-developed sense of right and wrong. When he was only eight, he took his father’s pistol and lay in wait for the Irish cop, backing off at the last second, but just barely, and at the frantic urging of his father, Vito.
Leo Bell was born a Polish Jew whose father invented a story that his family was from Ypres, Italy. Their surname didn’t sound Italian, but that’s just the way it was. Though Leo was a brainy kid, the all-important distinction between Italy and Sicily was lost on him. Shy and much less street-wise than his best friend Sal Benno, Leo was at the top of his class throughout his years in school. Different as they were, while growing up in Narrows Gate Leo and Sal became inseparable, though Leo didn’t acknowledge to Sal that he was a Jew until they were well into adulthood. As it turned out, Sal didn’t mind.
William Rosiglino, who later earned fame and, for a time, fortune as Bill “Bebe” Marsala, started out as a dull, socially awkward, emaciated misfit, the butt of a thousand jokes played by his age-mates at the expense of the weakest among them. His destructively overbearing mother, Hennie, however, discovered that the kid could sing, and she skillfully, brazenly, and selfishly pushed Bill and promoted his career as a Sinatra-esque crooner. In the process, she inflicted psychological wounds that never quite healed.
In very different ways, the development of Sal, Leo, and Bill into early adulthood is tied to changing investment patterns and conflicting alliances of Mafia factions, from New York to New Jersey to Miami to Havana, Las Vagas, and Los Angeles. Each young man, in varying degrees and in different activities, also retained an interest in legitimate endeavors, some involving investigative arms of the federal government. In important aspects their ties to legitimacy proved to be just as uncertain and fraught with duplicity as their Mafia connections. One is left to wonder just what legitimacy really means, as politicians and government officials jockey for position, with the most capable and those dealing in good faith often left behind, in ways that bring to mind the emergence and domination of the most brutal and amoral individuals and factions of the Mob.
All the while, each in his own fashion, Sal, Leo, and Bill were putting together private familial and quasi-familial lives of their own. The differences among them reflected diversity in character and personality and variation in their ties to organized crime, to nominally legitimate institutions, and in their aspirations and expectations for the future. James Fusilli skillfully, and often without forewarning, moves from one story to another, but does so without generating confusion but highlighting parallels and contrasts. He develops the connections among the three stories in a plausible and detailed manner, making unexpected links easy to accept, not requiring suspension of disbelief or leaps of faith to maintain his narrative.
Fusilli shows us the best and worst in Mid-Twentieth Century America: the value of lasting friendship and loyalty; the precariousness of wealth, fame, and high position purchased by transforming one’s self into an alien but eminently salable entity; the transcendence of ethnic and religious differences among those who recognized character, integrity and intelligence when they saw it; the corrupting, sometimes self destructive influence of unbridled ambition to attain ever more wealth and power. At their best, Fusilli’s Americans are rooted in relationships based on carefully fostered and durable love, friendship, and trust. At their worst, they are isolated and self-seeking, willing to do the rationally calculable thing, whatever it is, at the expense, even the destruction, of those who haven’t adequately covered their backs.
None of this is presented in a moralistic or didactic way, and there are definitely no guarantees that doing the right thing will someday pay off in monetary terms. Accidents of birth, circumstances of upbringing, and contingencies of the life course are too contextually intrusive for that. Nevertheless, if people of good will, capable of caring, find themselves together and recognize each other for what they are, their lives will be enriched in less readily measurable ways.
This is a fine novel that holds the reader’s interest throughout its nearly six hundred pages, and leaves him or her a wiser and more sympathetic person. It is a tribute to Fusilli’s skill as a novelist that he is able to introduce us to so many interesting, different, and believable characters without resorting to stereotypes or forcing us to flip back and forth to keep track of who is who. I put off reading Narrows Gate because of its length, but I enjoyed every page.” —- not a natural “Bob Bickel” (huntington, west virginia United States)
“What I think sets this book apart from others is the author’s use of real life personas within his book. You are transported into another time where Mobs reign supreme and immigrants are everywhere. For many you will seem many parallels within this book to the 1930’s and 1940’s in the United States. This book was a engaging read and I found that once I started the book I could not set the book back down. The action was intense and you truly do get drawn into the overall story and the action of the book itself. While the book is a bit long, you will not even notice it as you delve into the imagery and plot that flows off every page!” —- Dad of Divas
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