The Great Gimmelmans by Lee Matthew Goldberg

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The Great Gimmelmans by Lee Matthew Goldberg front cover

The title of the new crime fiction novel by popular author Lee Matthew Goldberg sounds like the name of a circus act. And, indeed, the story includes masks, taking on roles, daring feats and surprising actions – all most definitely like a circus. While in its early stages, you may be inclined to believe – in fact, you may fervently hope – you’re reading the recounting of a light-hearted romp, you are not, and the author takes pains to foreshadow the darkness to come.

The book opens with a short prologue in which Aaron Gimmelman, a novelist nearing 40, along with his unwilling, uninterested, and possibly anarchic son, is on a driving trip. To ease the friction between them, Aaron proposes they listen to the audio version of his first book, a memoir of his family’s extraordinary escapades when he was 12 years old.

The next several hundred pages are that book. In his retelling, Aaron and his family – father Barry, mother Judith, sister Stephanie (16) and sister Jenny (8) – lived an upper middle-class life in suburban New Jersey. When the stock market crashed in the late 1980s, Barry lost his job and their house and nearly all their belongings were repossessed. Left with a few clothes and a campervan the collection agency didn’t know they owned, the Gimmelmans pile everything into the vehicle’s small space and head south.

Nicknamed the Gimmelmans’ Getaway Gas-Guzzler, the camper threatens to exhaust every penny they have in the first few hundred miles, until, in desperation, Aaron robs a convenience store. Barry recognises a ‘good idea’ when he hears one and begins to plot other robberies – liquor stores, then a small bank. The farther south they travel, the more grandiose his ideas, the bigger the robbery targets, and he ropes every family member into commission of the crimes, even Jenny.

The story makes you think about the definition of parental responsibility. At first Barry seems merely wildly adventuresome. And Judith, who does little to stop him, is equally so. Although Aaron eventually acknowledges to himself and Barry that he was fully caught up in their illegal activities and enthusiastic about them at first, his bottom line is that Barry was the parent, the ultimate guilty party. Now that he’s an adult, he still hasn’t recovered.

Barry and Judith have never moved past adolescence; their noisy sex makes the children wince; they’re smoking dope and doing lines of coke. Stephanie is preoccupied with falling in and out of love and Jenny is just a strange one, with her habit of torturing small animals. By default almost, Aaron is the adult in this strange troupe. Cram all those personalities and behaviours into a tiny camper and something will surely explode.

They’re headed toward the home of Judith’s mother, who lives in Boca Raton, Florida, and has become an Orthodox Jew. She’s a hard case – prickly and judgemental. She’s never liked Barry and as the story progresses her criticisms (spat out in Yiddish) seem more than justified. The contrast between her world, extreme in its own way, and that of her daughter and her family of talented lawbreakers is a head-spinning example of competing realities. It can be hard to know whom to root for.

It’s the kids who are the most relatable and keep the story grounded. All things considered, they seem amazingly normal – except maybe for Jenny, who swears like a sailor and talks incessantly to a taxidermy opossum, but even she carries out her role in the robberies with gusto.

Many funny moments are sprinkled throughout the narrative but author Goldberg makes his characters so real I couldn’t set aside my anxiety about the increasing dangers they face. That comes not only from the inherent risks of armed robbery, as they learn disastrously, it also comes from an alcoholic FBI agent based in Miami, who believes ending the bank robbery spree will make him a hero. And it comes from a New Jersey mobster, hot on the family’s trail, whom Barry borrowed money from and never repaid – another person grandma correctly pegged. Loan sharks have long memories.

Barry Gimmelman takes his family – and readers – on a wild road trip at such a pace that family members rarely have time to stop and think. Readers who zip along with them may wonder how such a deluded individual ever operated as a stock trader. Or maybe that was the perfect job for him. Hope overcoming caution every time. Until… You can be forgiven for thinking of this remarkable family saga in circus act terms, but Aaron himself is still, decades later, seeking to forgive.

For another wild road trip see Love and Bullets by Nick Kolakowski.

Level Best Books

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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