Thursday, October 01, 2009

Book review: J. Louis Yampolsky, A Boardwalk Story

Welcome to Atlantic City circa 1939, the recreation capital of the Jersey Shore, a wondrous place lined with amusement arcades, elegant hotels, and antique shops. Here men and women stroll along the boardwalk in their best leisure suits and fancy dresses, pitchmen hawk products to eager tourists, and permanent residents move to basement apartments to make room for the summer crowd. In this tenth year of the Great Depression, money’s tight and war looms on the horizon. But as the days get longer, fifteen-year-old Jack Laurel is preoccupied with his new job at Krilow’s Kitchen Gadgets, his neighbor Rhoda’s sexy figure, and avoiding the wrath of neighborhood bullies.

With his best friend away, Jack falls into the company of a motley group of adults. Charming pitchman Benny James amazes him with his ability to attract gorgeous girls, and Morris, a watercolor artist with a secret life as a mechanical man, introduces him to the joys of literature. Then things really get thrown for a loop when a loner with a talent for commodities trading enters the picture. With the help of a fortuneteller who doesn't believe in her own abilities, they stumble into an unlikely business partnership which proves astoundingly successful and attracts the notice of a powerful Italian crime boss. Jack’s love life also picks up speed, but growing up brings complications along with new discoveries, and soon he starts to feel like he’s leading two separate lives.

This fast-paced coming-of-age tale stands apart from the pack. Jack, writing today, recounts his story while looking back on his youth. His narration, clear and snappy and forthright, switches smoothly between an adolescent’s exuberance and an older, more seasoned man’s experience. He peppers the story with details on clothing, geography, housing, prices, and salaries, but he personalizes everything so well that they never feel like dry facts. The author teases by having some of the characters veer close to caricature, but their unpredictable personalities prevent them from crossing the line.

Between Jack’s adventures and the eccentric characters he meets, the novel definitely has its zany side — it's lots of fun to read — yet the tone is tempered by a sobering realism. It’s nostalgic without being schmaltzy. In 1939, many men over forty are World War I vets who served in the trenches. Their perspective (and that of the older Jack) serves as a reminder of the world war they survived and the next one soon to come.

Though written for adults, A Boardwalk Story tells it like it was for teenagers living in the late Depression years. The author’s personal story is equally as remarkable. A retired accountant and financial manager with no previous fiction writing experience, he wrote the manuscript over a summer, inspired by his granddaughter’s questions for a school history project. If you’d like to journey back to Atlantic City of yesteryear, you can’t ask for a more entertaining or knowledgeable guide.


A Boardwalk Story is published this October by Plexus Publishing at $24.95, hb, 471pp, 978-0-937548-72-1.


  1. This sounds like such an interesting book. I love reading about that time period - it is so fascinating and a completely different viewpoint on the world. I have also enjoyed books where the narrator is looking back on their life - such as in Water for Elephants - it gives it a different vibe!

  2. This sounds really good!

  3. Great review - thank you.