Written by John Florio — It’s 1930 and Jersey Leo, aka Snowball, is a mixed-race albino working at the Pour House, a speakeasy in Hell’s Kitchen during Prohibition. He’s described as ‘…a walking cup of coffee with a splash too much milk.’ It doesn’t matter that his boss, Jimmy McCullough, is known as one of the roughest mobsters in the business. Jersey needs the money, and for a guy of his social status, it’s pretty good money.
One day, Jersey discovers that the moonshine he’s just purchased, called sugar pop moon, is mostly fake. He knows that he’s got to make it right, or Jimmy will make him pay. The only problem is he bought it from a crook called Denny Gazzara, a guy he doesn’t even know, since Jimmy’s regular supplier wouldn’t sell to Jersey. Buying the sugar pop moon was an act of desperation but it could prove deadly. Not only is bad moonshine bad for business, but it can kill people. Jimmy can’t know what he did, so Jersey will have to go at it alone, and that means confronting Denny. But first he’s got to find him.
When he puts the word out that he’s looking for Denny Gazzara, word gets around fast, and soon Jersey has been set up by a prostitute and nearly killed by a man wielding a cleaver. He manages to get a few blows in himself and make his escape, but he’s shaken and desperate enough to seek help from his father, an ex-fighter who raised him after his mother walked out.
Jersey and his father, Ernie Leo, set off to find Gazzara with the help of two friends but they find much more than they bargain for. The man wielding the cleaver has been striking terror into all albinos in the city, and the word is that the bones of an albino are needed for some kind of occult ritual. Could this have something to do with the moonshine, and if so, what?
Sugar Pop Moon is John Florio’s debut and it’s a cracking good story about a young man trying to find his place at a time when he’s neither wanted nor respected. What respect Jersey has gained has been hard won and he considers himself lucky to have the job he does, even if it is working for one of the city’s most feared mobsters. It’s something that his father is not too thrilled about, and Jersey has trouble convincing him to help out with anything involving Jimmy McCullough.
Jersey’s story is told in the first person, interspersed with passages from 1906 detailing his parentage. With his white mother Dorothy and black father Ernie it makes for a biting portrait of a doomed love affair, the repercussions of which have haunted Jersey his whole life. Jersey is a unique protagonist, and his internal struggle, and even self-hate, reflect on his actions, sometimes in shocking ways. Beneath the self-loathing, however, beats a rather tender heart, which is evident in his reluctance to let go of a love affair with a girl who doesn’t really love him. He’s quite tough, and loyal to those he loves, and is willing to do what’s necessary to protect himself and his friends. For a man with neither the law on his side, nor the city’s population, he fares impressively in the face of some pretty terrifying situations. His humour is a large part of what makes him so charming.
Sugar Pop Moon is a quick read, almost too quick. Further fleshing out of the key characters would have been welcome, especially since the author manages to capture the time period so effectively. I thought the bad guys could have been given a bit more depth – they match the usual depictions of the 30s gangster. That said, this isn’t an overly dark read, and the realities of race relations in the 30s lend a bit of depth to this entertaining, and quite original, debut. The end is rather surprising and certainly left me looking forward to the next Jersey Leo adventure.
Seventh Street Books
CFL Rating: 4 Stars