(Editor’s note: This is the 139th installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books.)
By Steven Nester
Every once in a while a touch of literary schadenfreude is just the thing when you’re down in the dumps. Observing the mess a fictional character has made of his or her life can put a bounce back in your step; and what might make it even more uplifting is knowing that no real humans were harmed in the improvement of your mood. Therefore, if even hearing the name Theodore Dreiser puts you in a whistling disposition, then the atmospheric and beautifully written Sidewalk Caesar, by Donald Honig (originally published in 1958, but later reissued as The Operator), belongs in your medicine cabinet right next to the Xanax.
In the downtrodden New York City outer-borough neighborhood of Capstone, where the houses are “bunched together like old men in the cold,” loser Milton Dono plots to change his luck—yet accomplishes anything but that.
Known in his school days as Milton Don’t Know, he’s looking for more than casual approbation. Milton wishes to transcend from lowly bartender to exalted local bookie to, he hopes, gambling kingpin—and plans thereafter to show anyone and everyone who ever mocked him the meaning of the word respect.
For a certain kind of young woman, Milton is irresistible. Lucille Maxwell, the aimless neighborhood hussy, is that girl. Milton, we’re told, “could produce so searing an eruption in her flesh, [that it] seemed possessed of potent fire, believable and capable, sufficient perhaps to kindle with its dreams the stores and paths of men.” Lucille believes in his self-aggrandizing plans, and gives herself to him as a result. This shameless pair rut in public places like alley cats (“he crouched in mad performance, she leaning away, swooned”), and so the inevitable happens—Lucille is knocked up and Milton, an illiterate crumb of a man, couldn’t care less. Lucille hopes he’ll marry her, but as folks might’ve said in the backwater of Capstone, “that ain’t gonna happen.” Instead, she agrees to begin a courtship with Milton’s brother Paul, a responsible and honest young man, as well as a virgin and a bit
of a chump, actually; then seduce and pin the pregnancy on him … which, further down the line, kind of succeeds.
Upon becoming a bookie, Milton, in an exquisite display of meretricious egoism, buys a fedora and crowns himself heir to the weed-strewn neighborhood’s bookmaking hierarchy. The locals who are in the know welcome Milton to it. Milton doesn’t learn from the mistakes of Walter Kinney, the local rummy and busted former bookie who becomes Milton’s runner, nor from the respected businessman, Mr. McMurtry, who back in the day had been one of Walter’s
employees. Milton is blinded by his greed and insecurity (disguised as ambition), and is not intelligent enough to understand that when the odds, the tools of his trade which he ought to know intimately, point to the slim chances
he has of achieving success, he ought to pay some heed. Unwilling to listen to wiser men, and unable to see that the deck is stacked against him, Milton’s downfall is inevitable—and what a tumble it turns out to be.
Sidewalk Caesar is a novel of psychological realism, making its plot secondary to the inner workings of the characters’ thoughts and motivations. Readers could well experience some cognitive dissonance as the omniscient narrator sounds several stations above the neighborhood flunkies and their tawdry lives, which are described in prose that is verbose, flowery, at times a bit opaque, and alien to the tabloid subjects of abortion, theft, insurance
fraud, attempted murder, and immolation.
Think Henry James talking about bookmaking with the demimonde instead of discussing morality in tidy Edwardian drawing rooms with those to the manor born. Thankfully, author Honig has no inhibitions about getting off his high horse to dirty his boots and describe the characters here with accuracy and empathy. He gets inside them with tough and terse dialogue, and allows readers to eavesdrop on interior monologues that succeed in duplicating how a character with limited education and expectations might sound.
(Left) Author Donald Honig
Honig uses descriptions such as “the whish of cars [seems] … remote, like the boundless flight of comets”; a “face as white as a moon”; Manhattan is “like another galaxy”; and car headlights are “twin moons,” all of which
saturate the characters and their environs with a sense of helplessness and preordained destiny, as if they’re merely additional components in a harsh universe, condemned to wander through life along predetermined paths, devoid of introspection.
Honig also pays a visit to Yoknapatawpha County with a plethora of Faulknerian flourishes, on the order of “sullen man-gone loneliness,” “child-calm,” “utter round-eyed astonishment,” and “the colossal rushing thundering froth.” These may lead to some head scratching among readers, but when appreciated for their own sake, the beauty of the poetics soon alleviates any confusion.
Milton Dono’s life spirals out of control when a bet made by McMurtry winds up bankrupting him. An alliance born of desperation with a deadbeat gambler—“a camaraderie … like two men who have shaken hands through the bars of
adjoining death cells and both of them are praying that the other will be dispatched first”—turns young Milton and his plan into cinders.
Donald Honig is a novelist and was once a frequent contributor of short stories to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, but he’s now best known as a prolific baseball historian. With Sidewalk
Caesar, he really hit one out of the park. During the golden age of pulp fiction, Sidewalk Caesar might have seemed too literary a yarn to make its way into the back pocket of an IRT motorman or a hot dog vendor roaming
Yankee Stadium; nowadays, it has no hope of finding its way onto a literature class syllabus. True, the book jacket teases that “greed and sex betrayed him,” but it’s belied by a sophisticated writing style, as if John Updike took on the rise and fall of Whitey Bulger. Sidewalk Caesar is a cautionary tale with a simple yet inventive plot about a tired and desperate inner-city existence. It’s a reminder that in a world where the individual answers to no
one but himself, even a person claiming the cheapest and most venal of lives deserves a dignified portrayal, if only because he makes the attempt to stand tall and shape a destiny that is mostly out of his control.