BY RAUL HERNANDEZ
The Dead Sea: “It is one of the saltiest bodies of water known and is the lowest point on the surface of the earth.” — The Free Dictionary
The Dead Sea Bar and Grill is about tough guys and conmen in New York City who concoct an elaborate scheme at the height of the oil embargo to scam Arab and American petroleum barons out of a million dollars.
It is 1977.
Oil is in short supply, disco is in full bloom, and the New York Yankees are on the verge of winning the World Series after a long drought.
Never mind all that.
The pint-size cab driver turned pimp, Butch Badovich, has a stable of women nobody wants. They are too fat, too old or too ugly. So Butch gives credit to shut-ins and other losers who are on fixed incomes so they can get serviced by his third-rate escort business.
Initially the business is thriving but soon Butch’s customers miss payments or thumb their noses at paying. The escort service is soon being crushed by debt.
Butch has his office in a booth at the Dead Sea Bar and Grill where his girlfriend Rosie Buendia keeps the books. The bar is a dive where con men and an assortment of thieves, robbers, street toughs and oddball characters congregate.
Rosie suggests that Butch hire an aging former heavyweight boxer Frankie Finch as a collector and enforcer.
Frankie is living in the dank basement of New Jerusalem Church of God’s Wondrous Signs and Marvelous Miracles, and working for a religious con man named Erasmus Jenkins who sold life insurance before got into the business of saving souls for Jesus.
Frankie is the church’s janitor, and life has become bleak.
Decades earlier, Frankie was young, promising boxer whose career was cut short by a crooked cop’s bullet when he refused to take a dive for the mob weeks before a heavyweight title fight.
One day in the basement, Frankie decides to end his life after an inner voice tells him to do so. Just when he is about to pull the trigger with a gun he borrowed from a friend who lives in an abandoned building, Butch comes calling.
Excerpt from the novel:
Butch showed up in grand style, wearing Florsheims, wrapped up in a powder-blue suit. Italian threads so flimsy that they looked like a silk kimono. He took out a cigar, lit it up and sucked on it. The cigar in Butch’s small hand looked like a plump sausage with a red glowing tip.
His made an oval shape with his lips, lifted his head and gently blew out a monster-sized donut shaped cloud. It floated across the air, eased across the room and vaporized when it hit a chipped brick wall.
Frankie gobbled a chunk of his sandwich and washed it down with wine.
“What the fuck do you want?” Frankie asked.
“Consider this visit an opportunity. I got a job offer for you.”
“I don’t unload trucks no mo’.”
“This ain’t about unloading trucks.”
“I ain’t wrestling another goddamn bear, either.”
“It ain’t that either.
“So, why you here?”
Frankie is reluctant to take the job because he’s heard about Butch’s reputation at the Dead Sea Bar and Grill. But after a few days and a lot of wine, he decides to go work for Butch. He learns about Butch’s dream: make enough money and move to Arizona with Rosie and get out of the New York City freezing cold.
Butch wants to go to Arizona to open a fruit stand in the desert with a neon sign,
Butch’s dream is slowly withering away because the pimp business is barely in the black.
He bets all his pimp business savings at the racetrack on Epic’s Warrior, a horse that is a very long shot. He got the tip from one of his customers that the mob plans to pump the horse with chemicals to help him run faster.
The horse blows past the other horses.
Butch collects tens of thousands of dollars from betting on Epic’s Warrior.
Enter Vincent Primello who was a bookkeeper and financial consultant for the mob. He is fresh out of prison and needs a bundle of cash to set up an elaborate scam to rip off Arab and other oil barons out of a million dollars.
The mob won’t go near him for fear of attracting FBI wiretaps and investigations.
Primello convinces Butch to finance his racetrack winnings on the scam. Primello also needs Butch and Frankie to help him. However, Primello tells them that the con won’t work without the help of Jennifer, a New York City model. Jennifer became like a daughter to Butch and Rosie after Butch and Frankie rescued her from being lured by a pimp at a Greyhound Bus Station when she was a runaway teen.
The Dead Sea Bar and Grill is about dreams and losers, a close friendship between Frankie and a 12-year-old shoeshine boy whose mother is a drug addict and a long lost love.
The novel has a bittersweet ending.
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