Table Money

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New York City consumes a billion and a half gallons of water a day. It flows through tunnels blasted foot-by-foot through rock--the unenviable job of men known as sandhogs. Owney Morrison, a newly returned Vietnam hero, represents the fifth generation of his Irish-American family to have worked in these awful caverns.

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In 1970, sandhogs are making up to $700 a week--but they earn every cent. The book is full of harrowing descriptions of deaths and maiming by explosives, cave-ins, and falls. The molelike labor and brushes with death take their psychological toll. Owney becomes addicted to alcohol, the sandhog’s occupational disease, and stays away from home.

Dolores Morrison, however, is not the traditional tunnel-worker’s wife, meekly tolerating neglect and accepting whatever “table money” is left over from the bar. Instead, she goes back to college and discovers the new opportunities opening up for women. As Owney skids toward disaster, Dolores claws her way upward toward self-realization. Conflict is inevitable: Owney has tradition-bound views about the role of women, and he does not welcome his wife’s new-found freedom.

Breslin’s major strength as a novelist is his understanding of people and their environment. He is a dynamic writer with a lucid style. He creates a whole world of wildly individualistic minor characters to give his book a feeling of reality, of history, and of slow, painful human evolution.

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