1906 The undoing of Lenny Ovitz
The Get: A Crime Novel
By Dietrich Kalteis
Toronto, ON: ECW Press, 2023
$26.95 / 9781770416840
Reviewed by Bill Paul
It’s 1965 and two street-wise Jewish hoods in Toronto, Lenny Ovitz and Gabe Zoller, hope to make bundles of money investing in a run-down tenement block near St. James Town. They’ve caught “wind that the city was going to rezone for high rises.”
Welcome to the laid-back, nostalgic, comic and stylized violent world of The Get, the latest crime novel by Vancouver’s Deitrich Kalteis. Most of the action takes place in the immigrant storefronts, side streets and alleyways off Spadina and University Avenue, or near the well-to-do, tree-lined streets of the Lawrence Park neighbourhood. The story turns on stereotypes and sentimentality: crooked cops and kid lawyers, trigger-happy criminals, a crime boss with an anger management problem, and hard working immigrant families who defend their livelihoods and fight back against corruption and extortion schemes. Characters exchange wisecracks and threaten one another. Tempers flare, bullets fly, and bodies fall.
As in his previous novel, Nobody from Somewhere, Kalteis’s low-life characters are eventually undone by their greed and casual cruelty. Gabe and Lenny work for Ernie Zimm, collecting protection money from the Jewish and Portuguese store owners in the Ward Six neighbourhood. Zimm is known for flying off the handle at the sign of any bad news and Gabe and Lenny’s carelessness and incompetence send him into a fury. Gabe is a former amateur boxer who showed some promise before he fell in with Ernie’s crew. He’s a troublemaker, a loud-mouthed “moron” who eventually finds himself in a jailhouse out in the sticks. His partner Lenny is two years into a rocky marriage to Paulina Levine (“the princess”). She knows Lenny works in the extortion business and has had enough of “his lies and neglect … and late nights.” Paulina wants out of the marriage. She’s waiting for him to bring her the Get (a Jewish document of divorce placed in the hands of the wife).
The tension in the story mostly centres on the acrimonious relationship between Lenny and Paulina. Whenever Lenny visits her the two of them can’t stop insulting one another. It’s clear that Lenny is on the losing end. The tenement block that he and Gabe invested in is going nowhere fast and now Lenny’s on the hook for the Get and a costly divorce. In short, Paulina is planning to “take him to the cleaners.” Lenny tried. He bought Paulina a dream house with a mortgage “that would choke a rhino” and filled it with “brass and crystal chandelier…. a kingsize bed upstairs, dresser and mahogany night tables she had sent over from Italy.” For her birthday he spent nearly three thousand dollars on a Studebaker Wagonaire with a sliding roof. And what does Paulina do: she hires a lawyer and starts dating her tennis partner, a high school science teacher named Gary. She wants the marriage annulled. Fine. Lenny is going to oblige her but in his own fashion.
Paulina is no push-over. She’s got attitude and can stand on her own but the story needs a couple of honourable men. Men such as Paulina’s father Isaac Levine, a jeweller by trade, and Gary Evans, an undercover cop pretending to be a high school teacher. Paulina and her father are a tight family. Isaac is a Hungarian Jew who survived the concentration camps during World War II and landed as a refugee in Toronto. This “seventy-two-year-old Johnny Weissmuller” is tough and resilient and makes an honest living. It comes as no surprise that he and Lenny (wearing his hair a little long in the front) have a mutual dislike for one another. The detective impersonating a science teacher, Gary Ross, is under orders from the mayor’s office to take down Ernie Zimm and his racketeering and extortion business. Zimm’s operation has plagued Ward Six for too long. One way to take it down is to befriend Paulina and get some incriminating information on Lenny. What Gary wasn’t expecting was that he would fall for Paulina. Lenny is not impressed.
Kalteis has a knack for establishing a setting for the non-stop action to unfold. In one scene near the end of the book, Gabe is under house arrest at the Half Moon, a roadside hotel in the countryside, miles from the city ( “open fields …. the funk of manure”). It’s a set-up. Ernie Zimm has pulled some strings. The police are going to turn a blind eye and let Gabe slip out the back window. Lenny, his partner, will be there to pick him up. Call it a reunion of sorts. So that evening, Lenny, with some reluctance but with a plan in the back of his mind, gets in his Galaxie 500 and drives north. Kalteis writes:
The watch Paulina gave him told him he was making good time, dusk settling as he pulled to the gravel shoulder, a hundred yards south of the motel, Lenny careful not to drop a wheel off the soft shoulder. Turning off the engine to the sound of crickets. Looking at the hotel sign and its tin roof, reaching across and rolling down the passenger and rear windows, letting air flow through the interior. The corn hissing a concerto with the crickets.
The Get moves quickly thanks to Kalteis’s clipped writing style and deadpan humour. He lightens the main storyline of the law versus organised crime by peppering the story with Jewish jokes and slang and sets up a running gag each time Ernie Zimm loses his temper (kicking trash cans, yelling into phones). Kalteis also includes pop culture references to television shows (Wayne & Shuster) and to performers who played on the Yonge Street strip (like Chad Allan, of Guess Who fame). At times the plot reads like an ode to the hardscrabble life faced by immigrant families in Canada. Isaac ( “Poppa” ) is a strong-willed man who has earned his way in “the new world.” Lenny’s family is from the old country as well, but Lenny’s incapable of doing the right thing. At age thirteen he beat a public mischief charge; later, working for Ernie, he was linked to the shooting death of a rival gang member. For most of the story he’s preoccupied with figuring out how to get back into Paulina’s good books or where he could find some chump to knock her off. In the end he finds himself in the deep end and runs out of options. Lenny Ovitz meets his match in Toronto the Good.
East Vancouverite Bill Paul enjoys photography and reading fiction and non-fiction. [Editor’s note: Bill Paul has also reviewed books by Suzannah Showler, Curtis LeBlanc, Patrick deWitt, Barbara Fradkin, Dietrich Kalteis, Stan Rogal, Keath Fraser, and John Farrow, and contributed a photo-essay, Trevor Martin’s Vancouver, to BCR.]
The British Columbia Review
Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.
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