Cast of Colorful Crooks in Bittersweet Family Saga

Five Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History , by Helene Stapinski. Random House, 255 pages, $23.95.

Can you ever really go home again? One might be tempted to deem the old adage not applicable after reading Five Finger Discount , Helene Stapinski’s literary debut, a riveting and, for the most part, poignant tale about growing up in overcommercialized, industry-ridden New Jersey. Amidst the environmental clutter and toxic landfills and the clamor of munitions explosions, there exists in Ms. Stapinski’s memoir a land resplendent with oppression and tradition, a land lost in yesteryear, when going to church and then Sunday dinner was the law–an era when familial rules and regulations were a way of life, not a chosen or preferred “lifestyle.”

In Five Finger Discount , a humorous and at times heartbreaking story of one young girl’s coming of age in a calamity of dysfunction and despair, Ms. Stapinski remembers and recounts as far back as the summer of 1970: She was 5 years old and faced with the realization that, in her family, along with the security, the parentally inflicted insulation and innate predictability, a would-be killer lurked: her grandfather. He was a well-known neighborhood bully, crook, wife-beater and suicidal sociopath–a man who produced heaps of fodder for the family lore. He held the Stapinski family emotionally hostage at a time when weary husbands, in an effort to keep a dry roof overhead and a piping pot of soup on the stove, labored long hours, often double shifts at neighboring industrial plants such as Colgate-Palmolive (the plant was situated a few blocks from the Stapinski home; windows were often nailed shut to keep out the thick, pollution-laden air). While the men were at the plant, their wives–in between caring for their small children and their sparse dwellings–sought part-time jobs at local stores, churches and schools; often they labored into the night for meager rewards and benefits.

Young Helene was exposed to the hardships of this daily life and forced to witness its pain and suffering. She recorded all this information in her mind’s camera, only to replay it later in life, mimicking a movie, complete with freeze-frames, vivid interiors and wide-angle exteriors. She shows us a beginning of hardship, a middle of heartache and an ending of personal triumph. Rather than focus on or exaggerate the bad, Ms. Stapinski brings the reader full circle with the raw, often embarrassing secrets of the Stapinski family history. She turns what might well be termed tragic into hilarious happenstance.

The attraction of Five Finger Discount is undoubtedly Ms. Stapinski’s recreation of the many colorful characters who have passed in and out of her young life. The ne’er-do-well Grandpa Jerry, or “Beansie,” fell out of step with the Stapinski clan early on and drifted into undesirable company, as well as an unacceptable lifestyle. This is not The Brady Bunch or Father Knows Best –Beansie has unbelievable kleptomaniac tendencies and makes multiple suicide attempts. He logs some time at the Meadowview Sanitarium. He’s arrested for attempting to murder the Stapinski children. This diabolical act is for the most part forgotten–washed over with comedy. Ms. Stapinski redirects our attention to the corruption within New Jersey courts: Bribe an official and charges are suddenly made to go away. Meanwhile, the author never makes clear her feelings for Grandpa Jerry, except to say: “Grandpa scared me, but in a way a muzzled attack dog scares you. I kept my distance just in case Grandpa bit one last time.”

It’s safe for the reader to assume that intense fear and anxiety lurked in the impressionable mind of this innocent child; it’s expressed later on in the form of comic relief. It’s through laughter that the reader is allowed the luxury of exploring the harsh realities of this less-than-perfect childhood. Ms. Stapinski races through her telling of life with Beansie right up to his death of a heart attack while detained at a local psychiatric center, then she somehow slows the pace. She walks us through such experiences as the absolute necessity, in the days of penny spreads, for working-class people to “play the number”: “You could bet a penny on a number boxed and straight and win a dollar back.” Betting the number was as important and necessary as paying the phone or electric bill. She makes us see how housewives “would lean out the back windows to toss out their coins or crumpled dollar bills” to an impatient bookie–Uncle Henry Stapinski.

Then there’s great-grandma Irene, “the illegitimate daughter of a Russian Orthodox priest and a Hungarian cleaning lady, a crime in itself in most social circles. She was a beautiful woman, with a shock of black hair, a smooth complexion, and a love for dancing.” She was betrothed to a man named Peter a year after Ellis Island opened its doors. Peter, a Russian albino a decade older than Irene, was a cold man with a penchant for beating his wife. One such beating killed her. Peter was charged with murder, but the charges were dropped in what is best described as yet another cover-up by corrupt New Jersey police officials.

According to Stapinski folklore, a shooting star meant impending death. The chapter entitled “Falling Star” is the author’s account of a tragic Tuesday in 1944 when Uncle Sonny, Ms. Stapinski’s eternally adolescent uncle, met an untimely death while hitched to the running board of a truck. Then there’s the tale of the lobster and filet mignon that the Stapinskis had for dinner–regularly. For some people this wouldn’t be unusual, but back in the day, when individuals were forced to live hand-to-mouth on a fixed lower-class income, this luxury was the exception. Items of all shapes and sizes made their way to the Stapinskis’ household. There were library books lifted from the free public library, toothpaste and toothbrushes taken from Colgate, pencils from the General Pencil factory, cakes and cookies from Sara Lee. And there were Papa Stapinski’s daily packages consisting of lobster tails, filet mignon, chicken Cordon Bleu and canned hams–luxuries tied in brown paper and tucked securely under the arm. As the author points out, “stealing” was acceptable, provided that one stayed within the limits and never let greed take over.

Determined to break out of the confines of New Jersey, Ms. Stapinski tried using education as her escape route, commuting on the PATH train to New York University. But after her father’s death, she took a job at The New Jersey Journal . Her career in journalism laid the foundation for her ability to tell a page-turning story.

In the tradition of other raw, earthy contemporary authors like Rita Mae Brown and Amy Tan, Ms. Stapinski is an exciting writer, unabashedly candid and, at the same time, unashamedly self-contained. Five Finger Discount is a must-read for all of us desperate to put the tragedies of our past to rest and forge ahead with the rewards and acceptance of our destiny–and to once and for all realize that, yes, we can go home again.

Victoria Gotti is the author of three novels and a book about women and heart disease published for charity.