It’s Miami vice with a comic twist

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY JOSEPH PESCHEL bookworld@wash­ Joseph Peschel is a free­lance writer and critic in South Dakota.

If you’re of a cer­tain age, you might ex­pect Thane Rosenbaum’s comic novel “How Sweet It Is!,” about Miami Beach in the early 1970s, to in­clude Jackie Glea­son. And there he is, the Great One, nar­rat­ing the pro­logue as if he’s de­liv­er­ing his open­ing TV mono­logue. Ac­tu­ally, he’s rem­i­nisc­ing from his Mount Si­nai Clinic bed about the great life he has had, work­ing with the big­gest names in show busi­ness as the best-known fat man in the world. Sure, he’s a lit­tle bit­ter about his show’s be­ing can­celed: Imag­ine build­ing CBS and then be­ing re­placed by Sonny and Cher.

He’s in the hos­pi­tal be­cause it turns out the Sur­geon Gen­eral was right about smok­ing four packs of cig­a­rettes a day. So­phie Pos­ner, a Jewish gang­ster and a sur­vivor of the Nazis, re­sides on the same floor. The fat man’s equal and con­fi­dante, she’s a hi­lar­i­ous and pitiable char­ac­ter who’s so tough that when­the doc­tor tells her she has can­cer, she says, “You think this is the worst news I’ve ever heard?”

In sub­se­quent chap­ters, Rosenbaum tells the wacky story of the fic­tional So­phie’s life as the lieu­tenant for real-life gang­ster Meyer Lan­sky. They meet in 1972, soon af­ter he’s de­ported back to Miami Beach from Is­rael. Lan­sky wants to turn the sleepy penin­sula into a gam­bling Riviera, but he dis­cov­ers that his crew mem­bers are flunkies who do noth­ing but “con­sume mas­sive quan­ti­ties of choles­terol.” Luck­ily, that’s when he meets So­phie, who threat­ens to break Lan­sky’s arms and legs. He ad­mires her moxie and hires her tomake col­lec­tions, brass knuck­les in one hand and leather sap in the other. They rub — and some­times break— el­bows with hip­pies, politi­cians, celebri­ties and sports stars.

Rosenbaum’s prose is pop­u­lated with puns, though some of his word­play is cal­loused: “So­phie took no pride in bak­ing. In­deed, she had once been among those se­lected for bak­ing — but on the wrong side of the oven door.”

Still, it’s hard to re­sist rais­ing a toast to a book that shows Lan­sky, Frank Sinatra, Isaac Ba­she­vis Singer and Muham­mad Ali at a Lit­tle League Base­ball game um­pired by Fidel Cas­tro.

As Glea­son would say, “And awaaaay we go!”

HOW SWEET IT IS! By Thane Rosenbaum Man­del Vi­lar. 194 pp. $24.95

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