Three By Schindler
by Willard Manus
Faulkner chronicled the south, Updike the suburbs, Hemingway the expat life. Now the Bronx has its equivalent, its literary champion. Steven Schindler is his name and he has authored three novels which capture the essence, the uniqueness, of the Bronx in masterful and imaginative ways: SEWER BALLS, FROM THE BLOCK and FROM HERE TO REALITY.
Technically the latter isn't a Bronx novel, set as it is Los Angeles and dealing as it does with the bottom-feeders of the TV industry; but its hero, Johnny Koester, is fresh out of the Bronx and has all the sensibilities of a true Bronx boy: irreverence, streetsmarts, toughness and resourcefulness. He's also got a quick wit and tongue, hates pretentiousness and phoniness, and always sides with the underdog and the exploited. He also likes girls (a lot), swears like a drill sergeant and has "Yankee pinstripes in his genetic code."
The hero of SEWER BALLS is Koester at a young age. Called Vinny Schmidt in this book, he is a student at a Catholic junior high who suffers grievously at the hands of the nuns but finds salvation in the Beatles, Soupy Sales, radio d.j. Murray the K, his family and friends--guys with nicknames like Whitey, BB and Jimmy Joe. Together they hang out after school and play gutter games like ringelevio, punch ball, stickball, stoop ball and King-Queen, always with a rubber ball called a spaldeen. Since there usually wasn't money enough to buy one, a sewer ball would have to do. What's a sewer ball? Here's Vinny's explanation:
"A sewer ball is just that. A ball from the sewer. Sewer balls are mined from the sewers of the city by city kids like country kids go looking for...I don't know...whatever country kids go looking for when they want to play something. During the summer, it's a fact of life that balls will go into sewers. Wiffle balls, spaldeens, tennis balls, jax balls, handballs."
The way you fish them out is by taking a coat hangar and straightening it out, then bending the round part "until it's just the right size to pick up a spaldeen...The reason for this thing is obvious. Everybody knows you don't want to be sticking your hand into sewer water."
It takes a team of two to retrieve a spaldeen from a Bronx sewer. One boy holds the other by his legs while he hangs head down and probes the black stinking water with his scooper, fishing for sewer balls. It doesn't pay to bother with one that's been sitting in sewer water for too long; the ball becomes hard and won't bounce well. "If you don't have bouncy balls, you might as well not play a game." Nor is it a good idea to drop one, because "you could get splashed with sewer sludge." The ideal ball is hardly stained, has a half-dark, half-light look. Once you bring it up, it should be bounced several times, "to get the sewer off it."
Both SEWER BALLS and FROM THE BLOCK are packed with Bronx folklore like that; Schindler is as much an anthropologist as he is a novelist. He is to the Bronx what Margaret Mead was to New Guinea.
The hero of FROM THE BLOCK has now become Jerry Pellicano, a recent college grad who is still living in the old neighborhood while struggling to find a place for himself in the world beyond the Bronx. His quest takes him to some strange, offbeat places--a part-time job in Lincoln Center's music library, a gig with an underground video production company in the East Village, a tryout with a bunch of ambulance-chasing TV news papparazzi.
All three of Schindler's books are comic novels with strong love stories at the core, but for all their sex, laughter and nostalgia, they have their share of violence, crime and death. Schindler may love the Bronx, but he doesn't whitewash or soften the way life plays out there.
As he says in FROM THE BLOCK: "This is New York city. Most of us just live off the natural resources we see all around us. Crime is everywhere, so there are plenty of police and court-related jobs. Millions of people with no cars, so there's transit authority. Ancient, poorly maintained buildings mean thousands of fires and fire-fighting jobs. Desperation is rampant, so the bars and dope-pushers do a bang-up business. And to fill the air time on TV, they need camera crews to cover all the disasters and human misery possible to make everyone feel a little better about their own misfortunes. Watching the local news is merely an exercise in saying to yourself, 'Gee, there's a problem I don't have.'"
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