This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.
Just as an artist needs to identify his light source before beginning a painting, a writer looks for a narrative power source — what sets the story in motion, or what obstructs it. Perhaps no writer is as concerned with the minutiae of power and motivation, its shifts and upheavals, as a journalist — someone who has covered politics, wars, and uprisings here and abroad. Not to mention a journalist who was successful in his field for years, who always met his deadlines and word counts, and who ultimately decided to leave the profession entirely in order write his own truths.
Thus it’s tempting, but not entirely correct, to ascribe Hesh Kestin’s literary sensibilities to habits he picked up during his 20 years as a correspondent for Newsday, The International Herald Tribune, and Forbes. In fact, even as a youngster he was the kind of kid who paid close attention: to his neighborhood dynamics, people on the street, the books he read. It no doubt behooved a boy growing up across the street from the headquarters of Murder, Inc. — the Brooklyn Mafia’s Jewish enforcement arm — to keep his eyes open.
Kestin’s father, a devoted reader in half a dozen languages (though not English) would take Hesh along on weekly sojourns to the Brooklyn Public Library and its large collection of Yiddish books. This wasn’t purely paternal on his father’s part; adults were allowed six books a week, but with the boy’s card he could check out four more. Nevertheless, Hesh became a book lover himself before long. He reclaimed his library card and immersed himself in worlds far from his own mean streets: the Midwest of Homer Price, wisecracking Freddy the Pig in his barnyard, the romance of Walter Farley’s Black Stallion novels, and Giovanni Guareschi’s Don Camillo books, set in Italy. His father would quiz him on what he was reading — characters, plots, what the authors were trying to say — and as he told Three Guys One Book:
By the time I was nine we were deep into literary criticism, a cross-generational, cross-cultural approach that can best be understood by my father’s throwaway remark that “In literature a horse is never merely a horse.” By then I had managed to convince the librarians that I “needed” more than four books a week, and so back and forth we marched, every Saturday, in sun, rain and snow, each of us carrying our six-book limit, both of us arguing structure, character and nuance as though the noisy urban streets around us were not only silent but hardly seemed to exist.
Kestin gave college a try, but it didn’t take. Instead he bounced around from coast to coast, taking work in newspapers when he could get it — he was writing obituaries for The New York Herald Tribune at 20 — and hanging loose in Mexico in between. In 1967, at the age of 23, he was the youngest reporter on staff at Newsday. He was tapped to cover the civil rights movement as it morphed into Black Power, thanks at least in part to his growing up in East New York — “all the other reporters were actually physically afraid of ‘Negroes’; me, I was afraid of the suburbs”:
This was the period of the Harlem riots, on the second day of which my editors presented me with a white motorcycle helmet, just the thing to wear to a civil insurrection. I told them they should have painted a bull’s-eye on it…On another occasion when I had set up a meeting with the leadership of the local Black Panthers my bosses insisted I take along a bodyguard, a young Irishman who weighed in at 280. When we got to the address, a rundown house on a dark street in a dark neighborhood, he wouldn’t get out of the car.
Kestin was itching to escape Newsday, and that May, realizing that the Middle East was on the brink of war, he decided he ought to be reporting from Israel when it broke out. He applied for a passport immediately, but when the Six-Day War ignited on June 5, he was still waiting. Adding insult to injury, Newsday sent him into local neighborhoods to report on the Jewish reaction: “A color story…All I could think as these people voiced their pride was: What the fuck are you so proud of? You’re ready to fight to the last Israeli. People are dying.”
He visited Israel the following year. “People ate in the streets, had bad table manners, and as a matter of course spoke loudly and repeatedly — and [I] felt: these are my people.” By 1970 he was married, and he and his wife moved to Israel, to a small village a few miles inland from the Mediterranean. Kestin joined the Israel Defense Forces, tended the orange grove on his property, raised five children, and wrote novels.
He had finished his first, Small Change, when he was 23, and it was bought and slated for publication until he balked at changing the title to Season of Lust. The book was never published, nor were the next three. Eventually, as he puts it, “the noise of the hungry bellies of my kids used to keep me up at night.” So he got a real job, this time as a war correspondent — for, as it turned out, Newsday.
He went on to hone his journalist’s craft at Forbes. While his three published books — two novels and a collection of novellas — are vastly different in style, plot, and setting, reviewers consistently praise Kestin’s economy of language, and it’s easy to see where the habit came from:
Forbes never heard about long-form journalism: A typical story might be 500 words, a single magazine page with room for headline and illustration. A writer might approach the incomparable Sheldon Zalaznick, then managing editor, with an absolutely factual exclusive proving the world would end next Thursday, and after selling him the story (over a couple of martinis), Shelley might say, “OK, give me 750.” Shelley’s mantra was as brief and pure as its meaning: “Just gimme the cream.”
Kestin trotted the globe as a foreign correspondent for another 20 years. When the opportunity presented itself, he started his own daily paper, The Nation (no relation to the American journal), which was eventually sold out from under him and merged with its competitor, The Jerusalem Post. Rather than return to work as a foreign correspondent — he suspected that his foray into publishing had rendered him persona non grata in Jerusalem — he went to Paris, as a consultant for The International Herald Tribune. But consulting work moved too slowly for his tastes, and he ended up back in New York, publishing a weekly English language paper, The American, for expats abroad. When that folded, he was offered a plum job at the helm of a new daily.
And then, 10 years ago, he walked away from the business entirely. As he puts it, “Hell, I was approaching 60. Wasn’t it time to do some real work?”
Kestin’s first work of fiction, Based on a True Story, is a collection of three novellas that take place in vastly different locations — Mombasa, Polynesia, and Hollywood — through the eyes of very different characters: a young female codebreaker from London’s Bletchley Park, an itinerant Russian Marxist, and a gay black screenwriter. Their tales couldn’t be more divergent either. What they have in common, however, is that they all take place in the early months of World War II. Kestin follows his own advice here: “Write from what you know, but not about what you know…when I write I am acutely aware of the tactile memory of places I have been: permeated by the recollection of sounds and scents peculiar to one spot or another, and knowledge of its light and weather, it all comes back.” So when he offers up the observations of Sgt. Joan Ferrin of the Royal Canadian Airforce on her accommodations in Mombasa, set in a year when he hadn’t yet been born, I believe them wholeheartedly:
Our duty room was full of flying creatures, from gnats and mosquitoes to a dependency of bats that lived in the rafters and preyed on a madrassa of praying mantises, each as long as a hand. For variety, the occasional snake slithered in to escape the heat, and a troupe of spider monkeys infested the grounds outside. Boredom was endemic.
And likewise, when the very British Lord Braithwaite asks Ferrin, “What do your people do?” her confusion as to whether he means her father’s profession or her dietary habits as a Jew needs no exposition: “Was he talking of my people or my people? Never mind. I was to answer.”
Kestin’s dialogue is consistently spot-on, and he doesn’t pad the action. In the title piece, Based on a True Story, when the B-movie Hollywood mogul EZ Shelupsky tells his scriptwriter, “Either tell me what’s on the boat or get the fuck personally out of my office,” the man’s speech tells us pretty much all we need to know about him. And the transgressions of Grisha Zabrodny, who has been hurriedly exiled to Tahiti in The Man Who Kissed Stalin’s Wife, need not be called out explicitly; the title takes care of that.
What the three stories do share is their concern with power and how it’s instituted and wielded, all against the backdrop of the darkening global situation. History does a lot of the heavy lifting here, but Kestin does the rest, and together they tell a larger story: that while we can now look back on the Second World War and the events leading up to it, in 1939 the big picture was still made up of fragments. Everyone was a blind man with only his or her portion of the elephant to navigate by.
Based on a True Story was published by Dzanc Books in 2008, and the following year, Dzanc brought out Kestin’s novel The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats — a terrifically genre-bending noir coming-of-age tale of Jewish gangsters in 1963 New York, all set against John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Its narrator, 20-year-old Russell Newhouse, has clearly borrowed a few pages from the life of young Hesh Kestin — the photo on the cover is in fact Kestin at 20 — but it diverges into a wonderfully complicated series of plots and subplots involving the eponymous Shoeshine, whose given name is actually Shushan, and a host of supporting characters.
Cats is one of the great protagonists of contemporary fiction: A thug off the Brooklyn streets who is also an autodidact, quoting de la Rochefoucauld to a couple of hapless policemen and attributing lines of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s to his late mother. In one exchange, Shushan explains to Russell,
“[P]ulling a trigger, that’s a whole different dimension. That’s why I vote for Wystan Hugh Auden as head of the joint chiefs. Ginsberg, he’d make a great leader of the Corps. These are guys they don’t back down in the face of bad news. Although, let me tell you, Wystan is not the kind of guy who’ll let on what he thinks. Should be in the Mafia.”
“You can tell that from reading him? How do you know what he thinks other than what’s in his–” I stopped. “Wystan?”
“You want to meet him? Miserable son of a bitch, but like I say, he’d make a fine general…A general and a poet are exactly the same in one thing. What they do they have to do with critical efficiency. Not a word or action wasted. And the action has to be more important than the man who creates it. You know Yeats?”
“You knew Yeats too?”
“Of course not. Yeats died fucking I don’t know forty years ago. I know Auden because he plays poker.”
The dialogue ranges from hard-boiled to whimsical, but through it all run Kestin’s musings on strength and influence: who has it, who gains it, who gets to keep it. As enjoyable as the novel is, it’s also dead serious. Kestin grew up around Jewish gangsters who, in the wake of long-term, institutionalized discrimination and the machinations in Europe, took back their power where they could.
Kestin’s most recent novel, The Lie (2014), veers in an entirely new direction. It’s a fast-moving, tense thriller, set in contemporary Israel. Kestin kept busy—and presumably employed—as a freelancer writing screenplay treatments between novels, and he uses that to his advantage here. But calling the book cinematic takes nothing away from its literary muscle. For a man who says he prefers to let his characters surprise him, he’s written a tightly plotted story, a political game of nerve with some seriously charismatic special ops for good measure.
The Lie is really a series of lies, ranging in scope from national to small and deeply personal. His protagonist, Dahlia Barr, is an Israeli Jewish human rights attorney who has made it her business to represent Palestinians. When she is persuaded to work for the Israeli Police force arbitrating the use of “extraordinary means,” she finds herself caught between extreme political factions and family tensions. Kestin brings the action alive through details both mundane and exotic; we learn, for example, that Israelis refer to the Arabs disparagingly as “cousins,” in reference to their common ancestors, and that cockroaches aren’t kosher. He also paints a vivid picture of life in an everyday war zone:
In the commercial street below, the chaotic stream of Beirut traffic plunges ahead like a river flowing down from the Litani mountains, now a rapids, now obstructed, now a broad pool…Shop owners stand still as monuments outside open-fronted stores that will soon be sealed with roll-down steel grates from two to four p.m. and then for the night after seven — none of the shops is fronted with glass. Glass has not worked all that well in central Beirut.
As in all thrillers, there is a payoff; to say more would be unfair to future readers. But Kestin is clearly having fun here.
In fact, he’s enjoying himself with all his books. His decision to walk away from a stable career in order to write fiction may not have been a simple one, but it’s obviously been rewarding for Kestin and his audience alike. And all those years of writing copy — when he needed to size up a situation at a glance, to communicate a complex hierarchy without spelling it out, and to let the reader in on his source of light in 500 words — were surely well spent.
Yeah, sometimes I miss being able to pick up a phone and get some prime minister or other miscreant on the other end of the line, sometimes I miss walking out of chaos with a compelling story, and sometimes I hate sitting in a little room compelled to make stuff up, even with the hope other people might one day read what I write with joy, sadness or just plain excitement.
But nothing beats writing magnificent lies, one after the next, about people who up to that moment do not exist. At its best, journalism is craft. But fiction is art.
Or should be.
In Kestin’s case, it is.
As part of World Book Night, a UK event designed to bring attention to books for adult readers, a number of famous authors have chosen books that they would recommend to readers. Stephen King’s selection was Hash Kestin’s small press effort The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats. Published by upstart Dzanc Books in the U.S. in 2009, the jolt of publicity generated by the King selection means the book will now be coming out in the UK as well. Our own Emily Mandel wrote a review of the book in 2010, calling it “a gritty enchantment”
I usually avoid talking about how much I love small presses. Partly because my feeling is that I’m so completely, obviously biased (both my novels are published by a smallish independent press, and I’m very happy with this state of affairs) that my opinion on the matter doesn’t carry much weight, and partly because the topic can quickly degenerate, among certain of my more committedly small-press-published novelist friends, into an “and I wouldn’t want to be published by a major press anyway, because they sometimes publish garbage” kind of a conversation, which I’m not really down with: it’s not that I have any desire to be published by anyone other than Unbridled Books, it’s just that I’m baffled by the idea that I’m expected to seriously condemn the houses that brought us Await Your Reply, Brooklyn, and Let The Great World Spin.
And yet: every now and again I’ll come across a book published by a small press that somehow seems, for all its dazzling excellence, like it might not have made it past the front door at a major publishing house. I’m not sure where I first heard about Hesh Kestin’s The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats, published last November by Dzanc Books; I think perhaps it was from one of the guys at ThreeGuysOneBook. Shoeshine Cats doesn’t seem to have been very widely reviewed, which strikes me as a minor tragedy—this is one of the best and most wholly original books I’ve come across in a while.
The title character is Shushan Cats, a Jewish gangster famous throughout the five boroughs of Kestin’s version of 1963 New York, but the story is narrated by Russell Newhouse—twenty years old, an orphan, coasting effortlessly through his course work at Brooklyn College, mostly preoccupied with trying to sleep with the largest possible percentage of Brooklyn’s young female population.
Russell has recently been recruited to take the minutes for the Bhotke Young Men’s Society, a sleepy organization of immigrants in Brooklyn. He’s the only member of the Society who might reasonably be considered young, and he’s there only because his late father was a member. His cohorts are older Jewish men, foreign-born; their children are entirely assimilated, but for these men, Kestin writes, “American was not a noun but a verb: you had to work at it.” The Bhotke Young Men’s Society’s anxiously under-Americanized members have voted to change the official language from Yiddish to English, and Russell’s English is impeccable.
Midway through Russell’s first meeting as official minute-taker the doors fly open, and Russell meets the notorious Shushan Cats for the first time. Kestin is a master of character description: “The figure who stood there—it seemed for minutes—was one of those small men native to Brooklyn who appeared to have been boiled down from someone twice the size, the kind who when a doctor tries to give him an injection the needle bends.”
Shushan Cats would like to join the Society. Membership in the Bhotke Young Men’s Society comes with a cemetary plot in Queens, and Cats’ mother has just died. Within minutes Russell has been recruited to plan the gangster’s mother’s funeral. Within days Shushan Cats has disappeared and Russell has been installed as his protégé and unlikely successor. He finds himself at the helm of a criminal enterprise, forced to navigate a New York City underworld wherein the suits are well-tailored, the language sharp, and control of the Fulton Fish Market hangs in the balance.
The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats is a fast, fearless, darkly comic book, the sort of thing that other writers read and wish they’d written. This is a feverish world, a refracted angle on 1963 New York that feels more vivid than reality. I find it admirable in part for its tinge of the improbable, its impossible suavité and secret rooms. Kestin catches us up in a gritty enchantment.
Where the book falters slightly is when Kestin breaks the spell: every so often we’re snapped out of the narrative with a brief digression meant to place this world in a historical context. We’re told that a purse purchased by Shushan Cats’ sister for $150 would be worth more than $1500 today, for instance, and of the Fulton Fish Market, Kestin notes that it “would later be relocated to the Bronx, thus freeing up valuable real estate for the stock brokers and bankers who would be buying condos on this site…” But it isn’t immediately apparent that the 2005 relocation of the Market is relevant to a story set in 1963, or that a note on inflation between early ‘60s and the present adds to the story; interruptions like these, in my entirely subjective opinion, serve only to distract us.
But the faltering is slight. I loved this book. I think that in some ways The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats represents the best of what small presses have to offer: freshness and originality, a unique voice, a boldness too frequently absent from our literature.
Bonus Link: A Year in Reading: Hesh Kestin