Andrew Gross hits the mark in “Button Man,” a gritty rags-to-riches tale of the 1930s New York garment industry. Stitched together with real-life Jewish mob figures (think Louis Buchalter and Dutch Schultz) and the author’s own family lore, “Button Man” is the story of three brothers, each trying to succeed in his own way. Morris is tough and determined to make it on his own merits without succumbing to the so-called “aid” of the mob-run union. While his brother, Harry, can’t resist the glitzy appeal of the Jewish gangsters. Man-in-the-middle Sol tries to keep the peace, but that is hard to do when all three are up against the likes of Murder, Inc.
Gross might be better known for his earlier best sellers, co-authored with James Patterson, but his solo foray into historical fiction is proving to be equally powerful. “Button Man” is an unexpected primer on how gangsters and racketeers infiltrated the trade unions in the early 30s. While combing through microfilm issues of Women’s Wear Daily at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Gross unearthed a sound recording of his own grandfather, a founding figure in the industry. Gross builds on this ancestry and his own personal experiences in the clothing trade to weave a tale full of Yiddish-isms and depression-era bravado.
But with only glimpses of the few female characters, “Button Man” is largely a blood-and-guts crime novel. As others in the garment industry submit to the violent “protection” of the union, how is it that Morris Raab keeps beating the odds? It seems the only way to stay clear of the mob may be to bring them down.
In the words of Gross’ grandfather, “you can do anything you want in life, anything – if you want to do it badly enough.”
Andrew Gross and his “Button Man” will appear at the Book Festival 12:30 p.m. Nov. 8.