Gross has changed his emphasis slightly for his last 3 books including this one, “Button Man.” The settings have been set in the past to make the novels more historical than present day. His ability as an author has not been changed in any way. He is a wordsmith and has a style and phraseology that make reading his books engrossing and his readers always searching for his latest novels.
I had recently read “One Man”, a masterful treatment of individuals incarcerated in concentration camps during World War II. I stated that this was Gross’s best novel. I have to revise my opinion to that “Button Man” now holds that place. But knowing his skills let’s see what the next book he authors holds for his readers.
In an afterward to the present book, the author indicates that the leading character is somewhat modeled after his grandfather. If so, he obviously has the advantage of remembering talks with the man as well as listening to a recording made describing his grandfather’s days as a manufacturer of women’s apparel. It brings the book’s setting into the period after World War I and the rise of businesses dedicated to these product lines.
Morris Rabishevsky and his siblings grew up in the lower east side of New York City. They were thrust on their own when their father passed away leaving them to start earning money to help support the family. Morris was 12 years old and began a career by managing to convince a garment cutter to take him on as an apprentice ahead of older, more experienced men. He quickly proves himself adept in learning the business and at 21 years of age opens up a his own operation along with his brother Sol, who had meanwhile been studying accounting.
The business became successful, Morris and Sol changed their last name to Raab,and grew during the early 1920s and 1930s. This was a period during which organized crime also grew in order to prey on those successful. Names like Lepke and Dutch Schultz arose to look for the means to bring the gains made by successful businesses into their own pockets. Unions were formed by gangsters for sole purposes of extortion of both the firm and the worker and certainly not to help employees with work problems.
While Morris and his family had to exist with the threats of the phony unions coupled with politicians and police officers on the take, Gross paints a picture of Thomas E. Dewey. Dewey in his career became a special prosecutor, becoming the Elliot Ness of New York in order to take down the criminals he went after. Not getting any witnesses to testify against the criminals due to fear of gang retribution, Dewey filed charges of monopoly in restraint of trade and other crimes not requiring witnesses to bring to court. In his lifetime he became governor of New York State and also ran for president unsuccessfully against Franklin Roosevelt and than Harry Truman.
Andrew Gross paints Dewey in a very favorable light giving him and his assistants credit for helping rid New York of much of it’s criminal element including an organized gang venture into murder for pay termed “Murder, Inc”. The businesses described in the book and the drive of their founders certainly can be equated with other organizations growing in a country that fostered the drive to make money. It is a favorable depiction of the capitalist system which makes pursuit of profit something desirable rather than a tawdry custom that detracts from the fairness that should exist between businessmen.
“Button Man” is not a book that is looking to expose what is undesirable but a picture of men and women building an industry through doing the best they can for themselves. Competition is desirable and helps to insure progress in areas that can use it to expand.
9/18 Paul Lane
BUTTON MAN by Andrew Gross. Minotaur Books (September 18, 2018). ISBN 978-1250179982. 384p.