Published by: Foxrock Books (Dec. 2002)
Paperback: 201 pgs., 10 illustrations by author: $12.95

It didn’t take me seven days, the length of mourning for the dead in Judaism, to read Sitting Shiva – more like seven hours straight. But it was time well spent with the first book of Elliot Feldman’s Detroit trilogy. There’s a dash of Elmore Leonard here, mixed with a pinch of Bukowski’s realism, but I like to think of the terse prose as Hemmingway on acid.

Not that Feldman wrote the book on acid, but it reads like a Woodstock generation acid flashback. Feldman’s been a cartoonist since the 60s, appearing in the early underground press including Detroit’s legendary Fifth Estate. His ten illustrations give the book that 70s Hunter S. Thompson/Ralph Steadman feel.

Having worked 20 years in Hollywood crafting one-liners and game shows for TV producers, Feldman doesn’t waste prose. When he’s funny, it’s often poignantly so. The lines are honed into gritty, tragic humor reflective of the fate of my hometown, the Motor City.

The book opens with the 1976 death of a small town Jewish gangster. His son, our protagonist Charlie Fish, tells us that “Morris Fish was full of shit. He was never around when I was growing up. He was either hiding out from creditors, especially Lowell Krantz. He shacked up with whores, played cards with mobsters and millionaires, or slept it all off on my mother’s goddamn pride and joy plastic-covered livingroom couch. Morris Fish was a degenerate gambler.”

The description sounded eerily similar to two of my uncles, one Arab and one Greek, or Bill Bennett. One was a reputed mobster, the other was also a degenerate gambler. Part of the fun is speculating on whether this is the standard thinly veiled autobiography or whether Feldman’s keen eye simply is capturing the universal ethnic experience for second and third generation Southern and Eastern European immigrants in post-war Detroit up until its de-industrialization in the 70s.

Charlie silently fills in the eulogy as the rabbi pauses for dramatic effect, “Morris Fish was . . . ?” The answer: “. . . a fuck-up, a liar, a bully, a weak man with uncontrollable vices.” Charlie is obsessed with finding out if somebody killed his father, a man he simultaneously loves and loathes.

In illuminating flashbacks, we learn of Charlie’s birth and the family’s typical flight from northwest Detroit to the Jewish suburban enclave of Oak Park, a place in the 50s and 60s where Jewish kids longed to be baseball players like Hall-of-Famer Hammering Hank Greenberg.

Everything mattered back then: nicknames, Playboy and one’s reputation. There was nothing worse than being a punk or a snitch. Feldman captures the attitude with frightening accuracy. I know, having lived through it myself (of course, as a Greek-American).

Weird phone calls from a crazy woman pour into the Fish household. The source is later revealed in a realistic ethnic Detroit twist.

In 1974, “To psyche up enough nerve to arrive alone at the ten-year Oak Park reunion, Charlie Fish ate two quaaludes, smoked six joints of Colombian, and downed two cans of Mickey’s Big Mouth malt liquor.” Who says that excessive drug and alcohol indulgence destroys the memory? This is a dead accurate summation of typical circa-’74 drug use. The only thing missing is the mandatory Black Sabbath album required to cut through the fog.

The book ends as Fish takes off for L.A. in 1976, just like Feldman and tens of thousands of disillusioned urban freeks who fled to the Southwest from the decaying rustbelt in the late 70s.

So you don’t do ‘ludes anymore or smoke that BC bud with the 30% THC content. Or drop acid. But, if you want to remember what it was like when you did – read Feldman’s Sitting Shiva and mourn the loss of a more open and liberal time before the 80s hypocritical war on drugs. The book recalls a time when Jack Ford was on the cover of Rolling Stone in barefeet telling us the best place to smoke dope was in the White House and now-(p)resident George W. Bush was an AWOL pilot who lost his flight status due to the period’s purple haze.

I eagerly await the next episode of the Detroit trilogy by Feldman.

To contact the author:
Elliot Feldman, 858-577-3261,

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