Lee Matthew Goldberg’s title for his new crime novel–The Great Gimmelmans–sounds like the name of a circus act. And, indeed, the story includes masks, taking on roles, daring feats, and surprising actions, all most definitely like a circus. While in its early stages, you may be inclined to believe—in fact, you may fervently hope—that what is presented as Aaron Gimmelman’s memoir is the recounting of a light-hearted romp. It is not, and the author takes pains to foreshadow the darkness to come.
Twelve-year-old Aaron and his family—father Barry, mother Judith, sister Stephanie (16), and sister Jenny (8)—live an upper middle-class life in suburban New Jersey until Barry loses his job, and their house and nearly all their belongings are repossessed. Left with a few clothes and a campervan the collection agency didn’t know they own, they pile everything into the vehicle’s small space and head south. Nicknamed the Gimmelmans’ Getaway Gas-Guzzler, the camper threatens to exhaust every penny they have in the first few hundred miles, until, in desperation, Aaron robs a convenience store. Barry recognizes a good idea when he hears one and begins to plot other robberies—liquor stores, then a small bank. The farther south they travel, the more grandiose his ideas, the bigger the robbery targets. He ropes every family member into commission of the crimes, even Jenny.
They’re headed toward the Florida home of Judith’s mother, who has become an Orthodox Jew. She’s a hard case—prickly and judgmental. She’s never liked Barry, and as the story progresses, her criticisms seem more than justified. The contrast between her world, extreme in its own way, and that of her daughter and her family of talented lawbreakers is a head-spinning example of competing realities. It can be hard to know whom to root for.
Many humorous moments are sprinkled throughout, but author Goldberg makes his characters so real, I couldn’t set aside my anxiety about the increasing dangers they face—from the armed robberies, from an alcoholic FBI agent, and from a New Jersey mobster Barry has cheated.
Barry Gimmelman takes his family—and readers—on a wild ride at such a pace that family members rarely have time to stop and think. You may wonder how such a deluded individual ever operated as a stock trader. Or maybe that was the perfect job for him. Hope overcoming caution every time. Until . . . This crime thriller has received several award nominations (Anthony, Lefty), not, you’ll understand, from the Good Parenting Association. Yesterday I posted about establishing causation in a story (what prize-winner George Saunders says is often missing in his students’ literary works), well this novel is packed with consequences, most of them awful.