Table Money by Jimmy Breslin (Ticknor & Fields: $17.95; 434 pp.)

May 18, 1986| William Hochswender | Hochswender, the features editor of Harper's Bazaar, grew up in an Irish-German neighborhood to the south of Queens. and

Jimmy Breslin has given us novels before--and innumerable stories, large and small, in his much-honored newspaper column--but never has he been so generous with his talent. "Table Money" is a heavyweight saga in an era of welterweights, a big fat book that's bone-hard all the way through.

Breslin territory is the inner world of the outer city--the city of gum-chewing barmaids and wary blacks in high-top sneakers, of attached houses with fire escapes in the front, of rusted el tracks and rushing buses and bars, endless bars. Here women look out the window and smoke cigarettes, while working men leave a little money on the kitchen table, then spread the rest on the mahogany of a saloon. To get to these neighborhoods from Manhattan, you need a subway and a bus, or two buses. But for many, this is not really a destination but a place to leave. It's where the melting pot bubbles over, the crusty edge of New York. In short, Queens.

For the Morrison men, Irish sons who work with their hands, the water tunnels that snake hundreds of feet beneath the bedrock of the city are their ticket to ride. Just as the water makes its downward journey, borne by gravity, irresistibly, from Catskill ridge to Fifth Avenue faucet, so the machine politicians have turned the system of reservoirs and tunnels that transport it into a muddy pool of municipal corruption. And the union that controls it has become a featherbed, dirty and dangerous, for the clans from Queens.

By 1970, generations of Morrison men have been employed as "sandhogs" in these monumental shafts, " . . . large and loud men who became insignificant as they stepped through shadows in this great stone cathedral; no Pharaoh, explorer or conqueror ever had seen or imagined such a sight. Running off the ledges on each side of the chamber were the entrances to 17 separate tunnels--noisy catacombs, 34 of them, enough crevices to hide a great religion from those who would end it by sword."

To the sandhogs, the tunnels provide protection, hundreds of feet thick, from the disorder and disappointment above ground. So it is for Owney Morrison, who returns from Vietnam with a Congressional Medal of Honor and a deep thirst for life and love. He returns to an apartment beside a vast cemetery in Queens--the dead actually outnumber the living in this borough--and to a job without a future beside his father beneath the earth.

While the men burrow through rock below, the Morrison women, loving and faithful, watch the television, gab cheerlessly and wait. Dolores, the scholar who marries Owney, knows that in this Irish-German neighborhood a wife's responsibility is to "keep a nice house, have the man there." But when Owney stays out drinking night after night, in the manner traditional among the neighborhood men, Dolores wonders if "her life would take on the sameness of the houses." Despite her pleas, Owney continues to drown the horror of Pleiku in a sea of Piels.

Quite unexpectedly, "Table Money" becomes Dolores' story, as she attempts to escape her fate, to break the chains of loyalty to family, church, union. Confronted with a Catholic theology that seems "based on ensuring that nothing hinders the movement of male sperm," she goes from one confession booth to another till she finds a priest sympathetic to birth control. In an area where job-fulfillment for women is sometimes measured by the distance one must travel from the office to the company cafeteria, she holds out for a big dream--to study medicine--besotted husband be damned. And, it could be, this is just the kick in the tail Owney needs.

Dolores' carefully lined character is the vein of gold that brightens and redeems this dark male world and puts the book on a different plane than, say, "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight." Of course, this wouldn't be a Breslin story without the sidewalk swells and candy-store cutthroats that people his earlier books and his Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper column. He's a natural storyteller, who seems to have lived them all, seen them with his own eyes.

He can be hilarious, as when he gives us a great minor character like McNiff, the hulking lawyer who shows up at court in bathrobe and slippers because he stays up all night eating ice cream--you see, since his wife left him, he never has sex.

He can be deadly ironic, as when he takes us through the system of American apartheid that extends from the playground to the judge's robing room, or when he flashes a symbolic middle finger at the temples of Park Avenue and "realty values, always more important in Manhattan than your next heartbeat."

He can be downright confusing, as when Dolores gets pregnant and gives birth--and Owney goes to work and gets drunk an awful lot--all in what seems to be the fictional interval of one day. But why quibble?

"Table Money" resonates with sureness and power, its rhythms of speech perfectly caught, as if brayed into a tape recorder outside a drugstore on Ditmars Boulevard. The book is brawny and Irish, but Breslin's sensibility is so pan-ethnic, the story teeming with believable characters of every stripe, that you don't feel it is an Irish or an ethnic novel. It has heft and weight and a certain essential goodness.

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