I had no idea what to expect when I picked this up in audio from the library. I read a few of Harold Robbins’ more commercial, salacious novels from the late seventies, yet hadn’t thought of him in years. Part of the reason why I wanted to look at Robbins again concerned those books: One of the stories I’m planning for my Bliss House series will be set in the seventies and will have Robbins overtones. But this novel is an entirely different animal from his 1970s work. Published in 1952, this is 1950s cinéma vérité with a heavy dose of Robbins melodrama thrown in for good measure.
A Stone For Danny Fisher is a brutal coming-of-age story covering both The Great Depression and WWII eras. Danny Fisher is a sensitive, likable, blond Jewish boy who, when his family falls on hard times, discovers that he not only has a natural talent for fighting but also for the clever manipulation of everyone close to him. But Danny is too clever for his own good, and has a serious tragic flaw that always propels his happiness just out of his reach.
There were moments that I had to stop listening to this story because it became too intense, too real. As a late baby boomer, I had grandparents who struggled through the Depression, but they were reluctant (or unable) to communicate the true horror of it to me. Robbins made me want to immediately convert all my money to cash or gold and stuff it inside my mattress. Several reviewers compare it to The Jungle, but A Stone For Danny Fisher has a stylistic point of view that The Jungle–with its empahsis on social polemic–lacks. It’s much more than a period piece. It’s an endless roller coaster ride of jubilation, discontent, and despair. And I mean that in a good way.
Robbins could have easily trimmed this book by a good 100 pages. It feels relentless, sometimes exhausting. And the use of the second person at the beginning…well, I found it annoying. In fact the entire conceit of Danny making observations from beyond the grave is too heavy-handed for my taste. But even with its flaws, I recommend it highly for fans of good writing, noir fiction, and early 20th century NYC.