Picks and Pans Review: Brotherly Love

updated 10/21/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/21/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Pete Dexter

Nick DiMaggio, a retired pro boxer who runs a combination auto repair shop and boxing gym in Philadelphia, finds that since leaving the ring he has a hard time hating anyone. "Somehow, he had ended up understanding too much; and what he can understand, he can forgive," Dexter writes in his new novel.

Such understanding and generosity, along with graceful prose and gritty dialogue, are the hallmarks of Dexter's work. The author, who won the National Book Award in 1988 for his novel Paris Trout, brings empathy—if not always forgiveness—to the most tormented and violent of characters.

The person Nick understands most is Peter Flood, an innately decent man tied by family and tradition to an indecent life. The two meet when Peter's Uncle Phil, a corrupt union official. brings young Peter and Peters cousin Michael to Nick's gym for boxing lessons. Michael, who as an adult will hire others to do his fighting for him, typically spends the sessions watching TV. Peter enthusiastically takes to the gloves, discovering that in Nick's gym he can briefly escape a ruthless world.

Thanks to a Dexterous device—a prefatory newspaper article—readers know from the start that, as adults. Peter and Michael are doomed to die in separate mob hits. In the next 270 or so pages, Dexter traces how Peter and Michael reach that inevitable point. All in all, it's an exhilarating novel. (Random House, $22)

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