Boogaloo on 2nd Avenue, By Mark Kurlansky, Ballantine, 336 pp., $24.95
Sex, drugs, music, murder, and home-cooked meals crowd the pages of ''Boogaloo on 2nd Avenue," which is set in a diverse Lower East Side neighborhood of New York City during the 1980s. With his first novel, well-known nonfiction writer Mark Kurlansky proves that sometimes less really is more.
Nathan Seltzer, the son of Polish Jews who came to the United States before World War II, experiences a midlife crisis while the neighborhood's eccentric characters create their own concoction of chaos. As Nathan develops random bouts of claustrophobia on the subway and begins to lust over Karoline, a German pastry maker's daughter, a killer is running loose. Meanwhile Nathan's father, Harry, is attempting to bring back the dance sensation called the boogaloo that was made famous by Chow Mein Vega in the 1960s.
Kurlansky creates an intriguing, humorous, and quirky family with their love for food, religion, and one another, but also with the compromising situations they find themselves facing. Nathan, the ''financially insolvent claustrophobe who harbored adulterous lust and had not taught his daughter to swim," creates enough chaos for the whole family. While an affair with another woman is enough to create conflict for any married man with a young daughter, Kurlansky complicates Nathan's affair with Karoline even more when his uncle Nusan, a Holocaust survivor, suspects Karoline's father of being a Nazi officer during WWII.
While the Seltzers are respected and relied on within the neighborhood, Kurlansky subtly reveals hidden tensions within the family. Nusan resents Nathan's parents for reasons tied to his past in the Holocaust, while Nathan's mother, Ruth, harbors her own resentment in her marriage to Harry, creating unresolved issues that beg for confrontation.
Along with the family's deep ties comes their overzealous love for food, a characteristic described with such vivacity that it's not hard to envy the characters as they indulge themselves. Kurlansky even shares recipes by the characters at the end of the novel.
Kurlansky, known for his terse nonfiction works such as ''1968," ''Salt," and ''Cod," has the ability to captivate with his fiction but unfortunately fails to follow through, leaving his trails of conflicts to meet dead ends. There is a level of anticipation as the Seltzers, especially Nathan, constantly encounter complicated and humorous scenarios, but these are often followed with sighs of disappointment as too many of these promising situations abruptly come to a halt.
Nathan's affair with Karoline, while a dominant aspect of the story and a potential disaster for Nathan's life, suddenly ends with a nonchalance that fails to make any lasting impression. Nathan's panic attacks cease without explanation, and the killer who is running loose is dropped into the plot so sporadically that the criminal's revelation is another meager reminder that he even exists.
Other minuscule characters, such as the three Italian Sals with their competing bakeries and a drug-dealing Dominican who tries to pass himself off as Puerto Rican, drown out the more interesting and significant issues of the Seltzer family -- the tensions among them never fully develop.
''Boogaloo" offers a smorgasbord of culture with not much order to bring it together, but just as Kurlansky writes, ''Boogaloo means everything. It is a fusion . . . with Boogaloo you can do anything. Wave your arms. You can wiggle your hips. You are in tempo. Boogaloo means everything and yet it means nothing." And that exactly describes the flow of ''Boogaloo on 2nd Avenue." It is a fusion of cultures, food, and personalities that waves its arms while wiggling its hips but fails to find a rhythm of its own.