This explosive autobiographical volume is a gripping account of entertainer Jerry Castaldo growing up on the mean streets of Brooklyn, NY, his agonizing descent into the darkness of the city’s underbelly and his desperate struggle back to normalcy.
Celebrated NY Post columnist, author and playwright Chip Deffaa edited this dark, yet highly inspirational story.
My Review (Spoilers):
Executive Summary: Dark
This book was chosen for our biography/autobiography category. We chose it due to its length, which while I realize sounds a bit silly for a book club. It’s simply just too hard for a lot of people to crank through a 500+ page book in a month. And most biographies or autobiographies are easily that length.
This book has nearly a perfect 5 star rating on Amazon, but yet if you look on wikipedia for the author, there is no article. Nothing of him as a writer or as a performer. The book was a bit of an enigma.
The story begins when Jerry is 16 and goes essentially until he is 31. And then there is a small chapter at the end which is current (2010). Jerry grew up in Brooklyn back when it wasn’t full of hipsters. However for the book being titled “Brooklyn, NY…”, it talks very little about the city itself. I was actually expecting somewhat of a memoir of the city, which I guess indirectly it was. Jerry is a bad kid. He grew up with a disabled, poor mother and a father who was never around. He stopped going to school in the 8th grade and slowly slipped into a live of crime and drugs. (There is a bit of a note at the beginning of the book where the author says that he has always been a good person. He started as one and returned to one but life essentially got in the way.)
He eventually gets too deep into trouble with too many of the wrong people and decides to enlist in the US Army and is shipped off to Germany. I found the thought of smoking joints in the airplane bathroom just absolutely incredible. If you did something like that these days, you’d be in big trouble. When he first arrives, he’s on the straight and narrow but eventually he relapses (a common theme of the book). He totals his car (another common theme) on the Autobahn and is taken to jail. While in jail, he pretends to commit suicide and is taken to a psych hospital. This temporarily helps him with his mental health but most importantly, it means he is not dishonorably discharged so he keeps his VA benefits.
Back in the US, he proceeds with a sine curve of life. He gets a job, he gets some money, he falls back into drugs and alcohol and loses everything. Over and over and over. He’s obviously a very bright individual as he scored well on the entry tests to get into the Army and was placed in a desk job. He at one point is the top flight attendant in his class. He worked on Wall Street. He seems to be an autodidact as it was mentioned a few times about how much he read, especially when he wanted to learn something. I think that the intelligence actually was part of his issue. He thought that he could just out-smart his addiction, and continued to try to “white knuckle” the recovery.
The two jobs that he keeps coming back to are personal training and performing. He meets a wide variety of important people through these jobs from political figures to celebrities, some of whom he initially has great rapport (like Jerry Seinfeld). Inevitably he relapses, and they shun him to protect their own investments. His long term girlfriend Mary Lou eventually left him which might have been part of the catalyst to wake up and smell the roses. After she left him, he took the job as the flight attendant from which he was eventually fired. He then moved to Mexico to work on a resort (could there really be a worse place for a semi-recovering addict). He was sent home from that after a gross story involving diarrhea in a swimming pool (seriously, yuck). He landed on his feet yet once again working as a personal trainer at an exclusive club (Friars Club) for performers. Like all other jobs, it was straight uphill and straight back down again.
On a somewhat insignificant date, November 1, he decided to go to a place that had been recommended to him by a concerned ER doctor. It was a center for addiction, specifically in Jerry’s case, AA. He began with one meeting and continued for over a year. 20 years later, he is still sober and working as an entertainer. He’s not famous (aka the lack of wikipedia article) but he does have a website and based on that, it seems like he does a lot of smaller events and does OK for himself.
Verdict: 4 stars
Even though this is not a book I would have chosen on my own (best thing about book club, imo), I think that for this type of book, it is by far the best I have read.
I actually really enjoyed the writing style of this book. I felt it suited the story well. Every chapter was titled with the year, how old that he was, and what the #1 song was. I’m not totally sure the relevance of the song, but I enjoyed that addition. The paragraphs were choppy, but in a way that worked. The book, only 200 pages to cover 15 years, was direct and to the point. He never sugar coated the bad things that he did, and the justification that he provided for them was always worded in a way that you knew that he only felt that way at the time (not in hindsight).
I don’t know a lot about addiction. While it runs in my family, it does not run in me at all. I don’t think I have ever been addicted to anything in my entire life (except perhaps sleep). So for me, it was interesting to read about someone who obviously was fully crippled by an addiction and quite candid about it. I found the justification parts specifically to be interesting. Early in the book, he mentions that he does bad things such as stealing because he wants to stick it to the man for making him poor when other people weren’t poor. I think maybe he was just addicted to the high he got from stealing and doing bad things with his friends. (Maybe someone should have Latarian read this book). Later in life, Jerry’s justification had changed probably because his social status had as well. Now it was that he could stop at any time. He had the willpower. He just enjoyed it. He just had a bad day.
I did find it a bit surprising how the book ended. He just woke up one day and decided that it was time to change. There wasn’t any one obvious reason, and it wasn’t as though he had been fired from other jobs many times before. Perhaps it was that one specific job. Perhaps it was a lifetime of accumulation. Who knows. I am glad that he got the help he needed and got back on his feet. Also being 31 myself, it was a little rewarding to think that your life can begin from now and be successful.