The Fourth Horseman of Miami Beach, by Albert Halper

April 26th, 2011

I had big hopes for Albert Halper’s 1966 novel, The Fourth Horseman Of Miami Beach. Even if the story turned out to be a dud, I figured the atmosphere would make it worth the ride.

Cover of first U.S. edition of "The Fourth Horseman of Miami Beach"And it does, at least at first. Leo Roth, president of the Dilly Dally Dress Company, a girlswear firm in Manhattan’s Garment District, heads to Miami on the trail of his cousin, Bernie Flugman, a ladies’ man and habitual gambler who’s stolen over fifteen thousand from the company. To kill time between his nights of cruising Miami’s hotels in search of Bernie, Leo lounges on the sun deck of the Bel Haven Hotel, where he meets up with “the three horsemen of Miami Beach”–Moe Stein, Hy Bronson, and Jerry Ryan, retired fifty-somethings who spend their time sunning, joking, and flirting with the fifty-something women regulars.

But before that, the three horsemen have to say goodbye to Eli Fensterberg, the late fourth. As Halper sketches the scene, it’s pure early 1960s Miami Beach:

Moe saw the two cabana boys from the Bel Haven move up to the casket and peer down at the lifeless face. He recognized a clerk from a Surfside delicatessen standing in line; the dead man had been a heavy buyer of anchovies, olives, and other tid-bits for his table. Behind the delicatessen clerk, who looked a little strange without his long white apron, stood Mr. Lipsky the tailor who had recently made two suits for the deceased. In the gloom Moe spotted Eli’s barber, then his eyes picked out the tall, corpulent owner of the Surfside Liquor Store. When you’re dead, Moe mused, you find out who your true friends are, only it’s too late.

Suddenly Moe stiffened. In the back of the chapel, sitting a few rows apart, were two tall, stunning blondes. They were the call girls Eli used to phone every couple of weeks, or whenever he felt like seeing one of them…. A feeling of envy came over him. What was the secret of Eli’s success with people? He had been an irascible little man, yet when he died the cabana boys, his delicatessen clerk, his liquor supplier, his motel manageress, his tailor, and even his call girls came to his funeral.

While there are plenty more scenes–in nightclubs, motels, swank neighborboods and low rent dives–that provide Halper a chance to paint word pictures, his renditions aren’t much better than the prose equivalent of motel/hotel art.

Nor does he develop any of his characters in any significant way. Leo Roth is quickly seduced by the comfortable life among the early retirees, he eventually decides that fifty-two is too early to call it quits, and he returns to New York. Bernie the gambler spends most of the book hiding in cheap hotels and hitting nightly poker games, desperately trying to win back what he owes Leo and others, he’s finally caught by a couple of thugs working for a Mafioso holding most of his markers. They beat him into unconsciousness, and when he finally comes to again in a hospital … well, nothing, really. He says he’s off gambling for good. Has he undergone some kind of transformative experience? Based on what Halper gives us, the only thing that seems to have been transformed are his nose and jaw.

Finally, after setting up the premise and bringing Leo and Bernie to Miami, the narrative wanders into a variety of cul-de-sacs, including a tedious subplot involving Rosita and Manuel, a pair of Cuban dance instructors. Aside from being in the same town at the same time, Leo and Bernie might as well have nothing to do with each other. Halper even fails to derive any climactic benefit from a passing hurricane.

The Fourth Horseman Of Miami Beach seems more like a first and very rough draft than a finished work. Something promising might have come from further work–tightening up the narrative, jettisoning the endless hand-wringing rounds of Leo and Rosita, and bringing the stories of Leo and Bernie to collision instead of stringing them on in infinite parallel. The Fourth Horseman Of Miami Beach was Halper’s last published novel, and it betrays more than a few signs of a writer losing steam and creative inspiration.

The Fourth Horseman of Miami Beach, by Albert Halper
New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1966

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