It’s probably safe to bet that author Thane Rosenbaum’s new novel, “How Sweet It Is!” is the first and only fictional work about the legacy of the Holocaust to feature Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, Meyer Lansky, Muhammad Ali, and Isaac Bashevis Singer.
Unlike in Rosenbaum’s other post-Holocaust novels, survivors and their offspring are not front-and-center this time. Instead, they play a supporting role in a larger-than-life drama starring Miami Beach, Florida, and the outsized personalities from the worlds of entertainment, literature, politics, sports and organized crime who happened to coincidentally inhabit it in the summer of 1972.
Rosenbaum, a law professor as well as a writer, actually lived in Miami Beach in 1972, but as a 12-year-old at the time, he had no idea that his hometown played host to many pivotal events that summer, including both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions and a major Counterculture demonstration. It was only many years later that he realized that as he was going about his day-to-day boyhood activities, famous (and infamous) individuals and major cultural changes were sweeping through the once sleepy, tropical paradise.
“I have no memory of the excitement of 1972,” Rosenbaum told The Times of Israel. “It was years later that it dawned on me that 1972 was an iconic year and that Miami Beach was the center of the world for that moment.”
Rosenbaum was inspired by his friend E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime,” an award-winning work of historical fiction published in 1975 set in the early 20th century that blended historical and fictional characters into a plot dealing with major events of the period.
“I wanted to write a sort of ‘Ragtime’ for Jews. I wanted to set it in Miami Beach in 1972 and let the characters be historical, but I would fictionalize them,” Rosenbaum explained.
Sinatra, Lansky, Gleason and the others are linked in the novel by the Posners — Holocaust survivors Sophie and Jacob and their middle school-aged son Adam, a star athlete. Jacob, who can barely function, shuffles around Miami Beach aimlessly in white tennis shorts and shirt. Sophie, equally damaged by her concentration camp experiences, is by contrast a whirlwind of manic energy and a tough broad no one would dare mess with. While Jacob’s misery serves as inspiration for Isaac Bashevis Singer (not yet a famous Nobel Prize winner), who meets him regularly at a coffee shop, the go-for-broke Sophie consorts with the gangster Lansky, who sees in her a kindred spirit. In the meantime, young Adam ends up parenting himself and uses his exceptional athletic prowess to run away as fast and as far as he can from his emotionally absent parents.
“How Sweet It Is!” is deliberately extreme, surreal and over-the-top comedic, reflecting the absurdity of renewing life after the Holocaust in paradisaical Miami Beach—as Rosenbaum’s own Holocaust survivor parents did. The main difference, however, between the fictional Posners and the real-life Rosenbaums is that the former looked at everything through Holocaust-tinted glasses, while the latter spoke nothing of the genocide to their son.
“I know people who lived like Adam Posner lives. They tell me what that was like, because that wasn’t my life. I didn’t grow up among any other ‘refugees from the camps,’ as they were known then. My parents shielded me from all of it and seemed so adjusted to our world,” the author recalled.
Rosenbaum, whose opinion pieces have appeared in The Times of Israel among many other publications, believes that if the Holocaust is as “unspeakable” and “unimaginable” as people say it is, writers should not try to normalize it. Accordingly, Rosenbaum has written a novel in which all of the Posners’ Holocaust demons have been unleashed onto Miami Beach at the very moment it temporarily takes the global spotlight. Unlike Rosenbaum’s parents and other survivors who tried to hold it together for the sake of their children and neighbors, the Posners impose no filters or restraints on themselves. They are anything but normal.
Miami Beach in 1972 is a place for second chances. Gleason, whose Miami-based TV show has been canceled, tries to figure out what his next act will be—if he will have one at all. Sinatra, too, is looking for a comeback. Singer, fresh out of New York stories, takes up residence in Miami Beach in search of new narratives. Ali hopes to get back into “The Greatest” shape. Lansky, extradited from Israel but lucky enough to beat the rap, gets to work building a new syndicate. Even Fidel Castro makes a fleeting appearance in the book as an umpire at a Little League championship game at which Adam Posner is pitching and the favored team is made up of Cuban refugees building a new life for themselves in America.
The Posners, of course, are also in Miami Beach in search of a second chance. It seems that Sophie and Jacob have not really managed to find one. It remains to be seen if young Adam will ultimately be able to, as he tries to outrun his parents’ secondhand smoke hanging heavily in the chokingly humid air.