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From the Publisher* "Mysteries of My Father is a rich book. Rich in Fleming’s textured description of Jersey City politics. Rich in wonderful personal anecdotes (Frank Hague’s last hurrah on a platform amid the surging, rebellious voters of the Second Ward is the stuff of epic poetry). Rich in sympathetic understanding of Teddy and Kitty and of their tempestuous marriage. Rich in honest evocation of ‘the morally grey world of Hudson County politics.’ And rich in its power to bring alive the once vital, now vanished world of the big-city Irish-American political machine… A moving, masterly, forgiving remembrance." (Commonwealth Magazine)
Although a paternal portrait may be his primary aim, Thomas Fleming's subtitle promises, more broadly, "an Irish-American memoir." For some of us, that's a worrisome vow, portending crapulous fathers who imbibe paychecks, pious wives who berate husbands for same and hordes of children wailing in squalor. True to form, the late-19th-century Jersey City to which Mr. Fleming's grandparents migrated was home to these auld Gaelic clichés. What adds the American to the Irish in this story, though, is its celebration not merely of stumbling and wallowing but of rebelling and ruling.
Following an eminent career as a writer of both history and fiction, Mr. Fleming has gone rummaging in his own family archives to produce Mysteries of My Father, a memoir of his father's fight to emerge from corrupting poverty with some part of his soul unbruised. And quite a scrap it was.
From his earliest (if never exactly tender) years, Teddy Fleming slugged his way out of obligations and into opportunities. One of his earliest bouts involved menacing a schoolmate into serving as his proxy for mandatory weekday Mass so that Teddy could earn money for his family as a newsie in Manhattan, a situation he had to secure and maintain with yet more hand-to-hand persuasion. As he matured, Fleming the elder punched, shoved and occasionally even boxed his way through the ranks of the 312th Regiment in World War I and the Jersey City Democratic organization during the Depression.
The civilizing influence of the author's mother, Kitty Dolan, went a long way toward keeping the Fleming household free from alcohol, domestic violence and lawless grammar. Eventually, though, her Catholic aspirations to Protestant gentility and heavy-handed elocution lessons failed to soothe her brute of a husband. In fact, the rigorous application of her snobbery to his rough patches wore away only the affection from their marriage, leaving bare an estrangement that was — and continues to be — a source of anguish for the author.
Teddy Fleming enjoyed many decades as the muscle in Mayor Frank Hague's Jersey City machine but, at the end, his triumphs withered. Following Kitty's "unconscious suicide," in which she ignored obvious warnings of breast cancer until she succumbed to it, Teddy Fleming lost his political puissance and, ultimately, all the strength he once possessed to continue his contest with life.
Teddy's son eventually left Jersey City to traverse the broad atlas of American history in more than a dozen books (e.g., "Liberty! The American Revolution," "Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America" and "The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I"). His talent for capturing the details of social and political history shines through in this memoir, particularly in the passages that give context to Teddy Fleming's rise to leader of the Sixth Ward, chairman of the Board of Chosen Freeholders, judge of the Second Criminal Court and sheriff of Hudson County. On these pages, Mr. Fleming evokes Edmund Morris's portrait of Teddy Roosevelt's political apprenticeship in "Theodore Rex."
Occasionally, though, when the focus constricts to the personal, one wonders whether Mr. Fleming labors under an excess of intimacy with his subject. For while the vigor of his father