Peter Maas William Kornblum

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William Kornblum

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hundreds of students in undergraduate sociology classes this year will become interested in American gypsies due to the publicity this most enigmatic of peoples is receiving from King of the Gypsies. This is justification enough to review the volume in these pages. But an even better reason is that the subject of gypsy life in America calls for more detailed and thoughtful treatment than Maas has given it. Students of the social sciences who read King of the Gypsies should at least have some knowledge of where to look for competent scholarship and honest reflection on the relationships between gypsies and the rest of us who create the social environment in which gypsies thrive.

Since it appeared in New York Magazine, this account of the Bimbo tribe of American gypsies has caused a stir in the city's publishing community. With obvious parallels to The Godfather and The Sting, the story of succession to the leadership of a violent tribe of nomadic gypsy con artists (women and men) seems certain to command an extremely high price on the Hollywood book market. How can it lose? Tales of shrewd gypsy artists, women fortune tellers whose sleight of hand tricks can run a pigeon roll over the most sophisticated Ph.D., are woven around a plot in which an assimilationist gypsy boy becomes the reluctant heir to the leadership of a violent and criminal "kingdom."…

Social scientists who read this piece of ethnic exploitation may well wonder who is being conned here. Certainly the readers are, and in a more indirect way so are the gypsies. The author never explicitly reveals what he did to establish trust with the members of the Bimbo family whom he interviewed, and in fact there are any number of occasions when it appears that Steve Tene thinks Maas can be of great help by using his reputation and his contacts with the Police Department in New York to assist the young gypsy leader out of legal scrapes. On the other hand the author stands to gain more money out of the sale of the book and the movie rights than any of the gypsies could have imagined. And the conglomerate which makes the film should net at least ten times more money than the police inspector quoted earlier claimed was owed by all the New York gypsies to unsuspecting gadje of that city. The author's final insight about the self-perpetuating nature of gypsy culture, comes to him when Steven Tene apparently asked Maas for a loan of seven hundred dollars, leading the author to observe that, "despite all his efforts at emancipation, he too was a gypsy."

One problem with King of the Gypsies is that the author happened to get involved with a particularly violent gypsy family. Secondly, he chose to believe all the stories which make interesting copy and good potential film scenes. In any case Maas does serious injustice to American gypsies by seeming to portray all fortune tellers as disguised con artists who merely tell fortunes in order to find the marks who wish to...

(The entire section is 771 words.)