You think your last birthday was a bad?
The Birthday Party: A Memoir of Survival. By Stanley N. Alpert. Putnam’s, 306 pp., $24.95.
By Janice Harayda
January used to be the low season in publishing, a time when firms released titles that weren’t sexy enough to compete with gift or beach books. No more, and anybody who wants proof needs only to pick up The Birthday Party. To say that this terrific book tells the true story of a New York stick-up gone haywire is like saying that Psycho is about a motel with an eccentric owner.
On the night before his 38th birthday, Stanley Alpert was abducted on a Manhattan street by thugs who expected to release him after using his ATM card at a nearby machine. The kidnappers changed their plans after learning that Alpert, then a federal prosecutor, had $110,000 in a savings account. With a gang-that-couldn’t- shoot-straight ineptitude, they kept him blindfolded for 25 hours in their car and a Brooklyn tenement as they tried to figure out how to grab more of his cash.
Alpert tried to humanize himself with his captors by tactics such as joking and giving them legal advice. He told the ringleader, who couldn’t fathom why he was single: “You should talk to my parents. They’re wondering, too.” But he had his limits. He turned down marijuana, sex with a hooker who helped keep an eye on him, and food (which he was afraid was drugged) except for a turkey sandwich, Peach Snapple, an Welch’s grape juice. Alpert kept his cool partly by memorizing clues to his captors’ identities that he hoped would help to put them away if he survived. And his strategies brought savory rewards when law-enforcement officials began hunting for the crew after his release.
We have to take Alpert’s word for much of this. But most of the story rings true, although his captors at times use oddly formal expressions such as “cellular phone” and his account of his legal career makes him sound like the Batman of environmental law. Alpert has no answer for his own question: “So why did God decide to keep me alive?” But on the evidence of this book, you might conclude that God just likes good writers.
Best line: When Alpert was missing and feared dead, a friend theorized that his disappearance might involve his investigation of a polluter with possible mob ties. An FBI agent dismissed the idea, believing the Mafia wouldn’t get worked up over an environmental issue: “Technically, dumping the guy in concrete shoes in the East River was a Clean Water Act violation, but who cared?”
Worst line: Alpert uses the redundant “PIN number” at least three times. He also writes of an “ATM cash machine.”
Recommended if … you’re hungry for manna for true crime fans or liked Boss of Bosses: The FBI and Paul Castellano, the true story of the government’s effort to bring down the Gambino crime family.
Editor: Neil Nyren
Published: January 2007
Furthermore: A reading group guide to The Birthday Party was posted on Feb. 4 and is archived with the February posts and in the “Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides” category on this blog.
Links: Alpert has a good blog on Amazon.com that includes dates of his future appearances www.amazon.com.
(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.