Take the A Train is a novel depicting the rites of passage in today’s America, a social ritual surviving from the world of antiquity but just as real in today’s racially torn cities as in any wilderness of the ancient world.
Michael Blankfort, a California author with a long list of novels to his credit, has written a novel based on his early years in New York. In many ways it could be aptly termed a Catcher in the Rye of the late 1970’s, for Blankfort may be picking up the literary torch that Salinger seems to have put down. He is also following in another American literary tradition first publicized by critic Leslie Fiedler, that of love between two male figures. Blankfort’s novel chronicles the friendship and deep love between two superficially opposite males: one a restless, defiant, scheming, yet naïve Jewish teenager, and the other a bold, brave, worldly, yet “ethical” black racketeer. It is no surprise to the reader to discover that when Doc finally returns to his studies, his chief literary interest is American Literature: “. . . Huck Finn and Nigger Jim . . . I liked them a lot.”
The plot of Take the A Train is neither intricate nor particularly violent. More important in Blankfort’s novel are the character portrayals, and for the most part the author succeeds in bringing alive realistic and believable persons. If some of the characters are occasionally stereotypes in their behavior or appearance, it must be said that they have become stereotypes for a good reason: they exist in great numbers.
The towering figure in Take the A Train is not the narrator but the middle-aged black man with a curiously Portuguese name, Franklin Gilboa, who befriends Doc after catching him tampering with the pinball machines in Franklin’s beach arcade. Franklin is a “crown prince” level racketeer in the Harlem of the late 1940’s, but he is a racketeer with a difference. There is a distinctly Robin Hood quality to his philosophy of life, which he calls “Humanology,” a philosophy which can be summed up as, “It means you don’t hurt nobody.” Franklin (he is never called Frank) spends his summers running an arcade at the Long Island shore, living in a basement hideaway in an all-Jewish neighborhood. Intrigued by Doc’s cleverness in trying to cheat him, Franklin agrees to take on the boy as a kind of apprentice in his many illegal activities. Franklin, instructing Doc in the finest hustling techniques, describes his philosophy as one of benign greed; Franklin does not cheat the poor, but he explains, “I got to be fair to myself, too.” Franklin believes that capitalism is the best system by which to spread the wealth around. A big tipper even when broke and on the run, he reasons it is necessary “to juice up the working class” so that it can support the hustlers. Money is for spending to achieve the good life, and Franklin spends it when he has it. Into numbers, horse betting, prostitution, gambling, and other smaller deals which come along, he prides himself on always paying his debts and insists on being “honest in an illegal business.”
In another time, this character conceived and portrayed by Michael Blankfort could have been seen as a villain, but in today’s American world Franklin is the crook with the heart of gold whose activities vicariously satisfy the longings in all of us. Doc sees Franklin as movie-star, handsome, six feet two inches tall, and always dressed for whatever role he is playing. Franklin sees in Doc a substitute for his own son, reared by his former wife and considered by Franklin a failure. Franklin is a poet and philosopher of modern urban society. With a clear eye, he sees the painful reality of life in Harlem: “The sound of Harlem you hear ain’t joy, man, or nigger beat; it’s a handfull of cash and a bucket load of trembling.” Franklin is a spokesman for racial harmony, asserting that blacks, too, must change their values if society is to survive: “Only slaves kill without thinkin’. . . . The ofays in this country ain’t the only ones gotta change.”
Lest Franklin Gilboa be seen as a modern, pious-hip moralist, Blankfort has painted another side of his character and talents in a brilliant description of the Uncle Tom act which Gilboa puts on when it finally becomes necessary to meet Doc’s worried Jewish liberal parents. Combining expert timing and Reader’s Digest psychology, Franklin enthralls Doc’s sister and father with his concern for Doc’s future as the reincarnation of his own lost son. He presents himself as a lonely, deeply concerned friend who is only trying to eke out his living in his many small projects. The scene gives delightful dimension to Franklin’s character, and enhances our sympathy with Doc’s firm adoration of the power figure. Curiously, though Franklin spent only one year at New York University under pressure from his own mentor, he clings to his own symbolic talisman of knowledge, which he comes to compare with the silver bullet in O’Neill’s Emperor Jones, a story he tells in the bars to anyone who will listen. Franklin’s mythical silver bullet—his blackmail-type knowledge of the rackets—is finally useless and that is when Franklin, through a mob set-up, becomes vulnerable himself.
If Franklin Gilboa is a figure of modern heroic proportions, his cruelty can be great as well; this facet gives added dimension to his portrayal. Thus, when Doc has the misfortune to decide he is romantically in love with Franklin’s favorite prostitute, Franklin does not hesitate to punish...
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