JIMMY BENCH-PRESS By Charlie Stella
Reviewed by Mike Dennis
“None of the rules apply unless you’re high up enough to dictate them down. Even then, sooner or later, the rules get changed on the fly.”
That’s NYPD Detective John DeNafria clueing his new partner into the world of Organized Crime in Charlie Stella’s 2002 novel of the New York streets, Jimmy Bench-Press. Former boxer Alex Pavlik is DeNafria’s partner. He’s new to the OC unit, fresh out of homicide and ready to kick some mob ass. Pavlik has a reputation for being a loose cannon, not entirely on board with inconvenient rules such as Miranda rights, so DeNafria has to keep a close eye on him at all times.
Brooklyn mob soldier Jimmy Mangino is about to find out how the rules apply to him. He’s a street-level guy, fresh out of prison and back in the rackets. He cuts an intimidating figure and can bench-press four hundred pounds. I’m not a weight-lifter and even I know that’s a hell of a lot of poundage to lift. Yes, Jimmy is one tough dude.
But he wants to become a made man, and that’s where his problems begin. He does strongarm jobs for the higher-ups, like knocking off porn case witnesses and running protection rackets around town. He hopes these little errands will ingratiate him with “the skipper” and move him ever closer to his eagerly-awaited induction ceremony.
Standing in his way are DeNafria and Pavlik, who are working on a low-grade extortion case. They have Mangino in their sights and they hope he will lead them to much bigger fish. From here, the novel moves swiftly along, parallelling the developments in the case, only taking occasional time out for each of the two cops to anguish and commiserate with the woman in his life.
The book is populated by assorted mob lowlifes and their put-upon victims, all of whom Stella has drawn to perfection. His dialogue is fine-tuned to the point where the reader can very nearly hear the actual voices of each character: pitch, inflection, the whole shebang. He clearly has a grip on the material.
Stella is the author of several other novels revolving around New York wiseguys, all of which have been well-received by readers and critics alike. Jimmy Bench-Press, which was his second novel, drips with violence, but in a different kind of way.
A comparison can handily be drawn to Val Lewton, movie producer from the 1940s, whose RKO films such as The Cat People, The Body Snatcher, and I Walked With A Zombie suggested much more horror than was actually shown. Lewton was given microscopic budgets to work with, so he was forced to improvise, but he also firmly believed that the images of horror which resided in the minds of his viewers were much more powerful than anything he could put up on the screen. Once he tapped into those dark corners of their imaginations, audiences of the day had nightmares after coming out of his movies.
Stella, however, can splash all the blood he wants on his pages, and there are indeed some red stains. No surprise there, of course—-it’s the mob, right? But the novel is at its most effective when the reader can feel the violence lurking in Mangino’s threatening persona. All Jimmy has to do is nod or grunt and right away you know the mayhem he’s capable of causing. As with Val Lewton, Stella’s readers can easily conjure up horrific images without seeing them played out on the page.
Jimmy Bench-Press rings with authenticity and is an excellent introduction to the world of the low-level criminal footsoldier.