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BOOK REVIEW: Garment industry meets the mob in ‘Button Man’

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"Button Man" by Andrew Gross; Minotaur (384 pages, $27.99). (Macmillan Publishers)

Andrew Gross’ prowess for rich historical mysteries, usually with a Jewish theme, takes another leap forward with the engrossing “Button Man.”

Set in New York City’s Lower East Side, “Button Man” works well as a family drama, the story of the rise of organized crime and its control of some unions, and a guide to the garment industry’s early days and Jewish culture. It’s also a story about the American Dream, of people who start with nothing and rise through hard work. At the heart of “Button Man” is a simple yet vital question: “What does it mean to be a good man?” as one character asks. Add to that, how does one combat evil and yet keep one’s soul.

“Button Man” starts in the early part of the 20th century, smoothly moving through the 1930s and ending in 1992.

It’s 1905 and the Rabishevsky family has a hard-scrabble life, barely eking out a living with the father’s low-paying job at the nearby synagogue and the mother picking up the occasional dollar by sewing. The cramped apartment is too small for the parents and their six children, but that is normal on New York City’s Lower East Side. Life becomes harder when the father dies in a fire and one of the boys is killed. Now the three sons — Harry, Morris and Sol — must support their mother and two sisters.

At 12 years old, Morris starts work sweeping floors at the Majestic Garment Company. But he wants more than a menial job and soon learns how to do each of the steps in making garments. The owner suggests he use Raab for his last name as it is easier to pronounce. At 20 years old, Morris is running the firm and a few years later he owns his own garment company, bringing in Sol to help him. Harry chooses a different path, preferring to align himself with an expanding organized crime syndicate, including Louis Buchalter, a rising mobster.

As Morris’ business grows and lands some major clients, his company is targeted by organized crime, which has begun to infiltrate the garment industry, controlling the unions, deliveries and hiring. Even Harry’s affiliation with Louis can’t stop the mobsters from targeting Morris’ company with violence. The term button man takes on a double meaning — relating to the garment industry and in the mob, it meant a hired killer.

Gross skillfully weaves in real mobsters such as Albert Anastasia and Dutch Schultz as well as New York Special Prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey who made a career of going after mobsters.

Gross also calls on his own background to imbue the scenes in the garment industry. His father and his grandfather were successful clothing manufacturers, running the Leslie Fay Companies.

Union corruption and vicious criminals add an intriguing background, but the main strengths to “Button Man” are the family dynamics and an insider’s look at the garment industry. While the Raab brothers are close, Harry has always been the family outsider — caring and cared for by his family but also never completely comfortable with them.

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