Murder, Mayhem and Jarlsberg: Eric Konigsberg’s “Blood Relation” Book Party

blood relation.jpgIt is unfair to the delicious selection of other cheeses at New Yorker/NYT mag/New York scribe Eric Konigsberg‘s book party to single out Jarlsberg for attention, not to mention the ginormous fruit-topped multi-layered cake, or the two snack-o-licious varieties of goldfish (cheese AND pretzel!). It is also unfair to Eric Konigsberg, whose book “Blood Relation” is based on one of the most incredible stories I have ever heard: growing up in a quiet Midwestern household as a Jew in Omaha, Nebraska and then subsequently finding out that your uncle was a Mafia hit man and is serving a life sentence for murder.

I know. There are Jews in Omaha?

Konigsberg’s account of his great-uncle Harold “Kayo” Konigsberg, legendary Mafia enforcer and probable icer of upwards of twenty luckless victims, brought a standing-room crowd out to the Chelsea Barnes & Noble for a reading and Q&A last month (which is what we now call October). As his mother, father and grandmother* watched from the audience, he read about learning about Kayo for the first time (from a loose-lipped groundskeeper at his east coast boarding school, and then ten years later in the course of writing a magazine story on a Mob hit, when a former detective asked him if he was related to “the famous Konigsberg”; when he called his father to investigate, his father said “That’s my Uncle Heshy. Please tell me you said you weren’t related”) and then about actually meeting his uncle, the killer, face to face (“I ain’t gonna hit you,” he said, suddenly calm. “You know you got your grandfather’s nose?”), and subsequently visiting the grown son of one of his uncle’s victims, still suffering the pain of loss a generation later (“If you talk to your uncle, could you please ask him where my father is, I mean the body?”).

I know I should be talking about the boldface names (artists! editors! Canadians!) and we’ll get to that but I am compelled to say more about this book because it is fantastic. Konigsberg writes so easily, it all comes to life so immediately in a wonderful effortless way, from the small details that evoke Konigsberg’s grandfather — Heshy’s brother, a man of real virtue and charity — to the larger-than-life Heshy himself, a classic sociopath: charming, voluble, expansive, volatile, and utterly amoral. I’d love to see this as a movie, with some great actor chewing the hell out of Heshy’s scenery. The book is good. Really, really good.**

Which brings us back to the Jarlsberg: also good, also went down smooth n’ easy. It seemed to be enjoyed by the crowd, which included (segue!) Konigsberg’s gracious hosts, the New Yorker‘s Shauna Lyon and her husband, filmmaker Ramin Serry ; Konigsberg’s wife, the foxy, leggy, charming and fabulous Ruth Davis Konigsberg (Ed. – in the spirit of disclosure, that is the only editorial contribution suggested by Konigsberg – no need for a TTB there!), deputy editor of Glamour (and mother of their baby boy, Alec, whose birth coincided with the final deadline of the book; Konigsberg was at the hospital with a manuscript and a red pen); HarperCollins Senior V.P. and Eric’s editor David Hirshey, who knows from good Jarlsberg — and good books; Konigsberg’s “agent for life” ICM’s Sloan Harris, who received that shout-out from his grateful client later in a brief impromptu speech; William Finnegan, David Grann, and Ben Greenman from The New Yorker; John Homans from New York Magazine with co-worker Ariel Levy, chronicler of bewitching MoDo-charms; Michael Massing of the New York Review of Books, who wrote this stinging piece debunking Judy Miller‘s WMD claims; Tom Scocca from the New York Observer, who joined me in gratitude to Mr. Harris for the lift downtown; Elle executive editor Alexandra Postman, the New Republic’s Michael Crowley (accompanied by his brother, who had just been to an extensive wine tasting and was very excited about it); Susan Dominus from the New York Times Magazine; Vanity Fair photographer Wayne Maser; artists John Currin, Rachel Feinstein, Philip Smith, and (novelist-painter) Jonathan Santlofer; authors Joshua Wolf Shenk (“Lincoln’s Melancholy”), Dirk Wittenborn (“Fierce People”), Tara Bray Smith, (“West of Then”) and Eugene Linden (The “Parrot’s Lament”). It should also be noted that I met a party guest who was not only from Toronto but had gone to my high school (he was shy though, so you can’t find out who he is!). But how’s that for coincidence. People, we really are everywhere. Finally, there was HarperCollins Associate Editor Nick Trautwein who edited the book with Hirshey and earned high praise from Konigsberg as his “brilliant and tireless” editor (Hirshey was runner-up as a “brilliant” editor but then again, Nick was the one who fielded the phone calls on, er, either side of the conventional business day. That does tend to require tireless).

The evening waned and so did the cheese (which, frankly, is usually my cue to go). Konigsberg, resplendent in a blazer and highly-patterend shirt and tie, thanked us all for coming and hugged most of his guests (aw). We’re confident that, despite familial precedent, he won’t make a habit of burying bodies in unmarked graves. Aim high, right? Fortunately, with “Blood Relation” he does, and hits the mark. And just so you know, I’d have said so even without the cheese. Heshy would be proud.

*Clarification of lineage: Uncle Heshy was Konigsberg’s father’s father’s brother, i.e. no blood relation to his grandmother. But still, no one likes a goniff in the family.
** I’m not finished yet but that’s only because I let my mom read it while she was here — I’ve been instructed to bring it for my Dad on my next visit. I will do so, as evidence: they’re not all nice Jewish boys, nu?