Philip Cioffari, a professor of English at William Paterson University, has written an engaging novel about three friends, one of whom is dead.Anthony Buccino
“The Bronx Kill”
By Philip Cioffari
(Livingston Press, 254 pp, $16.95)
When the title “The Bronx Kill” crossed my desk, my immediate reaction was annoyance, figuring it was yet another dig at where I grew up and the author was making a clever play on words. The difference here is the author is also from these streets and knows them.
Philip Cioffari, a professor of English and director of the Performing Arts and Literary Arts Honors Program at William Paterson University, centers the novel on a part of the borough known as The Kill. It’s an odd mix of burnt-out cars and towering weeds, where the East River and the Harlem River meet.
Our protagonist, Danny Baker, a would-be novelist, is mired emotionally. Five years ago, he and his pals tried swimming across those rough waters in the shadow of the Triborough Bridge. One of them drowned. All were deeply changed by that terrible night.
Cioffari charts what happens to them, as they all come together for one of the guy’s weddings. The book begins with a hard-boiled approach, as if he’s trying to channel Raymond Chandler.
He offers excellent insights into young men, who though not feckless, they’re not exactly paragons of responsibility. Cioffari, of Fort Lee, is at his best explaining the buildings and bars where blue-collar workers toss back boilermakers and never showing fear is as important as your next breath. When Danny returns home he needs to confront ghosts, friends, and here, his dad.
“In the cramped room, the air hung heavy and close. The wall clock above the fridge counted off the seconds as they stood leaning on opposite ends of the counter, between the space of years and things unspoken.”
The novel takes place in an area of the Bronx where the East River and Harlem River meet, homeless take shelter in abandoned rail cards, dealers sell drugs and young men lose their innocence.
Danny checks in with Charlie, the self-anointed leader of the group, the high school jock whose glory days are a burnished memory.
Charlie tends bar at a neighborhood dive and fancies himself a boss. He’s also a sexist bully who was rough with Julieanne, the young woman he and Danny desired. Julieanne, however, cared the most about Timmy, the boy who drowned.
Rounding out the cast of characters is Johnny, a sensitive, spiritual soul who left the seminary and is getting married.
Looming over everyone is Tom, Timmy’s older brother and a rogue cop who thinks nothing of threatening witnesses, enlisting drug dealers and bending the law to settle his vendetta.
Tom is convinced Charlie, Danny and Johnny killed his brother and he’s determined to mete out justice, whether in the courts or on the street. As one-note as Tom could be, Cioffari shows what life looks from the detective’s perspective.
“Over the years the scum of the earth had risen like a tidal wave around him. And it was drowning him. He could feel the weight of it pushing him deeper, so far beneath the surface at times that he thought he might never see the light of the heavens or breathe pure air again.”
They all have good reason to be afraid of Tom, who’s a thug with a badge and a grudge. But they have more reason to protect their friendship and forge on with their lives.
Danny’s self aware enough to recognize he’s not like many other guys, finding no solace in drugs, booze or casual sex.
“His preferred indulgence was memory: the regret and guilt it carried, his fixation with it as an emblem of his still-young but failed life.”
None of them has exactly flourished since that wretched night. Julie, as she now prefers to be known, has fought her way back from a serious scrape with the bottom of life. She now pulls beers in a “bare bones beer and shot water hole: a place you crawled into when you didn’t want to see what daylight had to offer.”
Tom wants to frame the three pals for Tim’s death and it ultimately comes down to a wonderful chase scene. They all must contend with individual ghosts that continuously haunt them, and fight current threats that could end with a toe tag in the morgue. As they listen to themselves and to each other, Tom finds himself in the weeds.
“He listened for breathing, the scrape of a shoe, or what he liked to call the whisper of a moving shadow.”
As Cioffari hurls readers to the end, I have to admit I am very glad I did not judge this book by its title.