Taking in all of the details of Brownsville is alternately chilling, upsetting, and pleasurable. This is a graphic novel set in the thirties, packaged as “true crime,” and happily a copy arrived at the library just in time to write this review. Although it draws on non-fictional sources in its portrayal of the infamous Brooklyn Murder Inc. gang, the book is a great and engaging work of fiction, and provides a world in which to immerse the imagination that rivals the real one. Allie Tannenbaum, the book’s main character, falls prey to the attractive offer of an older man to enter into illegal activities, initially as a strike breaker in the 1930s. Although the initial actions play out innocently and without much consequence, things gradually escalate into violence, and the recurring theme of Allie’s relationships as an estranged son and uninvolved husband takes a toll both psychological and emotional. I like the black and white graphics, simple and effectively boxed, which easily convey the story. The graphics, sectioned into episodes, serve the storyline, but also put me in the mood of the scenes in which Brownsville’s action takes place: in busy diners, post-Depression street corners, hotels in the mountains, the men’s room stall.
Brownsville can be read as a life lesson, to avoid the allure of unthinkingly rejecting society’s conventions in favour of easy answers and the friendship of a powerful group. Family relationships and the ways that violence is implicated in business interests are both pretty relevant themes to this day. I could sympathize with Allie’s choices, and felt gripped by the chain of necessity that led to each character’s decisions. The small talk between two mobsters as they dispose of a dead man felt oddly normal, just like a couple of employees hashing things out near the end of shift. It’s the juxtaposition of deadly action and believable characters that really holds this book together.