The Pugilist Poets of Venice by Jon Sindell
“A rollicking, big-hearted tale, full of laughter, bravery and unflinching humanity.”
~ Emily Kiernan, The Great Divide
A Boomer, an Xer, and a Millennial walk into a book and ask: “Are friends really `the family we choose for ourselves?’ And how cool is cool, really?”
Meet Hammerhead Hirsch, a charismatic middle-aged boho known in the 60s as The Pugilist Poet for his Golden Gloves boxing crown and Beat poetry chops. Thirty years later Head has become a first-time father, and his joy is immense—until the mom bolts. Can Head last fifteen rounds as a single dad with a paltry income, scanty prospects, biting demons, and a “ball-and-chain” kid? The tale is told by a worshipful youth who accompanies Head and his son on a turbulent yet often hilarious
“Prose that zings, swings and frequently sings.” ~ Tracy DeBrincat, Hollywood Buckaroo
“Funny, sad, relatable and engrossing.” ~ Stephen D. Gutierrez, American Book Award
“With unflinching honesty, humor and a keen eye for detail, Sindell brings unforgettable characters to life.” ~ Martin McCaw, The Low Road
Targeted Age Group:: 15 and up
Heat/Violence Level: Heat Level 3 – PG-13
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I was inspired by the love and reverence that a seeking youth can feel for a street-savvy middle-aged rebel who seems to have all the answers, but is burdened with tearing personal demons and difficult life circumstances. I was inspired to ask: How cool is cool really? Is it overrated? Is it compatible with responsibility? I was inspired to explore whether friends really can be "the family we build for ourselves," as the fridge magnet tells us. I was inspired to explore single fatherhood, and to tell a tale of a Boomer, an Xer, and a Millennial journeying through the 90's together. I was inspired to be real, to be funny, and to be real funny.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
The main character, Hammerhead Hirsch, aka The Pugilist Poet and Boardwalk Balladeer, is the archetypal counterculture hero born of the Beat and Hippie eras, a quintessential free spirited rebel of the type younger souls have often revered. I've known men like him. The narrator, Robbie Steiner, who at fourteen does revere Head when they meet, is a searching young soul who stands in relation to Head as did the young Henry V to Falstaff, or Nick Carraway to Gatsby. There is much of the younger me in Robbie (there's a bit of me in Hammerhead: people who know me often think I am or was Head, but that's not so). The third member of the brave little family that Head and Robbie form is Scrapple, a boy abandoned by his mom, Head's old lady, at twenty months. There is much of the high spirit of my son in him.
“AIN’T NOTHING WRONG with you a good nickname can’t cure,” Head winked as he dubbed me The Chair-Man. “It’s how you blend in with the furniture, kid.” His wink felt like a father’s hand on my back, or so I imagined: my back never knew the touch of The Hand That Pumped Ten-Thousand Fists, top producer of townhouse sales in the western end of the San Fernando Valley, which my mom had just fled. My refuge was The Lantern, where I’d sit the overstuffed chair near the register to avoid the Jew-baiting surf rats in my new school while punishing Mom for our lonely new life.
Head turned to a customer selling a load of Zap Comix, and I jotted my joy at having been tagged by Hammerhead Hirsch, aka The Boardwalk Balladeer and Pugilist Poet.
“The Chair-Man,” I mused. Better by far than “Robbie Steiner,” the patently Jewish name of a fourteen-year-old don’t-wannabe Jew.
“Yeah, The Chair-Man,” Head said with merry mockery. His voice was like honey sprinkled with grit—a key element of his potent allure. “What’s in a name?” he asked the ceiling. “Tons!” he replied, and launched into his patter, a felicitous marriage of So Cal cool and East Coast brio seductive as notes from the Pied Piper’s flute. “Way back in Brooklyn, I was Hillel The Hebe. That’s what the Italian kids yelled when they chased my sweet ass through Lafayette Park. And I got so fast from that I was soon batting leadoff on an Eye-talian team in the Ice Cream League with some of the clowns chased me through the park. Yeah the Ice Cream League, it sent more players to the big leagues per capita than anyplace else you can name, betcha. First and foremost—” Head lifted his eyes to the heavenly choir— “Sandy,” meaning Koufax, the great Jewish star he’d followed from New York to L.A. “Yeah, Hillel The Hebe. When my pop heard that, he did what any red-blooded Yiddishe papa would do. He put down the dish towel, stuffed some old socks into a couple of oven mitts, hung a gunny sack full of dirt from our one scrawny tree, and taught me how to box. You shoulda seen him, man, Mordechai Hirsch, the boxing tailor, whomping the bag with those stuffed oven mitts, shouting ‘Never again!’ Whomp! ‘Never again!,’ the fringes of his prayer shawl fluttering in the wind as he stuck and moved, stuck and moved, reaching up now and then to steady his beanie lest it fall to the ground. You may not believe this in an age of Jewish white collars, but your peeps had a number of boxing greats once—a slew of crowns in the lighter divisions, and some middle and heavyweight champeens, too. Didja know that?”
I shook my head, for I rarely knew anything Head told me about ten years ago and felt in his presence like I hadn’t been born.
“It’s a fact. Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom, Max Baer, Benny Leonard—”
In the interest of proving that I, too, was a sentient being, I blurted: “Did your dad have any nicknames?”
Head grinned crinkly eyed, like I like you, you dope. “He had one: ‘Pa.’ To everyone else, he was just ‘Mordechai.’ That was all the nickname for a man like him.”
Whatever that meant. The neighborhood of the Lantern was peppered with people Head had tagged, such as O’ Sad Fred, the sad- sack who’d worked at The Lantern even longer than Head, and Lantern regulars Too Tall Ted and Rebel With A Cause, and Boardwalk characters like Juicy Jack and Dapper Dan, all of whom deemed the bestowal of a nickname from Hammerhead Hirsch akin to being knighted.
So naturally, the naming of Head’s only son occupied the man and his girlfriend for months before the child was born. “Jedediah?” Head would say with a mischievous glint. “Adelbert? Aloysius?” Saffron, Head’s love—ah, heavenly dove!—would smile at Head while knitting booties on the garage-sale rocker Head had scored when they learned she was pregnant. I never had seen a smile so pure, and it amazed me that a gorgeous girl of twenty-one, with long brown hair and soft brown eyes, could be so in love with a man twice her age. “Bingo?” said Head. Saffron raised her brow as if to say, “Why not? Anything’s possible. We’re possible, aren’t we?” They fell with a laugh into each other’s eyes, and I felt as I was: an awkward teen who’d never been kissed.
“Bookmark!” I erupted, for the babe was due soon. “Just name him Bookmark and you can change it later when you see what he’s like.”
Head lifted his bushy brow in amusement and pointed at me with a sausage-like thumb. “See why I keep my buddy around?” Saffron smiled with approval. And so, in a week, Bookmark Hirsch arrived.
I visited The Heads two nights hence bearing a stuffed bunny wearing boxing gloves I’d bought with two weeks’ allowance. Saffron was reclining against the oversized pillows on Head’s king-sized four- poster with a white canopy Head had rigged for her and the babe. It was summertime, and the evening was still. The amber glow from an oil lamp was the sole light in the room. A sea breeze stirred the canopy. “Sail away with me,” Saffron murmured to her babe in arms, and the babe gazed up into eyes brimming with love. The babe looked tiny nestled in milk-swollen breasts, and neither parent cared that the mammary on which the babe suckled was exposed to the view of the palace eunuch and court jester. Head sat at the massive mahogany desk he’d scored second hand—he never “bought,” only “scored”—and wrote this letter to his newborn:
Tuesday May 21 The Best Year of My Life C.E. (aka 1990)
To My Brand New Squishy Little Squiggly Pink Squid,
Hello, dude, and welcome to the world! It’s me, your paw, Hammerhead Hirsch, doing that old-fashioned, Hallmark, write-a-letter-to-your-newborn thing to put on your wall in a real cool frame just as soon as you’re able to read it. The first thing you gotta know about this 43-years- young dad of yours, he ain’t no straight-arrow, necktie- wearing Hallmark guy at all, he’s a poetry slammin’, night jammin’, beer drinkin’, blues singin’, bookstore clerkin’, hard workin’, been-there, done-that, flower-power graybeard with a squashed pug’s nose and a tie-dyed shirt and a beat-up fedora I wear ’cause I like it. And more than all that, I’ve got so much love for you, it’d fill the Great Lakes and half the Pacific!
And so does your mom, little dude, what a beaut! A’course, I’m talking body and soul. There’s a song, my friend, from before you were born, about a girl named Saffron who the singer was just mad about; and not a day goes by that I’m not singin’ how I’m just mad about your everlovin’ mama with the free-flowin’ hair and maple-candy eyes. And lookin’ at her rockin’ lookin’ down at you, the glow in those eyes has never been warmer. See, you’re gonna be just mad about Saffron, too.
All my love, *Pop*
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