The Roofer is an extremely grim look at one woman’s life in the Irish mafia of Hell’s Kitchen. If reading about tragedy after tragedy is your preference, this may be the book for you, but much of the book’s bleakness felt gratuitous to me.
Ava O’Neil is the daughter of Frank O’Neil, otherwise known as The Roofer for his preferred method of execution – throwing people off the roofs of New York’s tenements. Ava’s family was always dysfunctional, and with her dad’s death, she is left reminiscing about her childhood in the mob and its effect on her brother and sister and herself. Her sister Carol married out of the family. Her brother, Tom, became a cop and an alcoholic, and Ava spends her time caring for her father and brother and mopping up after their liquor and violence bingeing. She has no life of her own. No career, no husband or boyfriend, and no hobbies except for vodka.
The Roofer takes place during the three days of Ava’s father’s wake and involves the slow unfolding of Ava’s life story told in flashback. The reader sees her current life and relationship with her brother, father, and father’s mafia friends, and then her past relationships with them. Most of Ava’s reminiscing is very, very sad. Think of all the personal tragedies that people in your life have had, and, chances are, Ava’s gone through most of them. Her immediate family has experienced mental illness, suicide, violent death, mental and physical abuse, alcoholism and other substance abuse, and more. The most emotionally stable people in her family were her sister, whom she disliked, and her father, who was a murderer.
Though I did not enjoy the unrelentingly sad nature of this book, the problems I had with it were more complicated than the mood Orloff evoked. On the back cover it states, “The Roofer is an unflinching and unsparing look at life within the criminal underbelly of New York, and it is the story of one woman’s journey as she struggles to break free from the only life she has ever known.” The feeling that I get from this and from Orloff’s acknowledgements is that The Roofer was written to de- glamorize the mafia – to show the true tragic nature of life within a crime family. I do not think Orloff accomplished that goal.
Most of Ava’s problems do not stem from her father’s involvement in the mafia, but instead from her mother’s inability to function as a parent and her eventual death. Had her mother not been mentally ill or had she been responsive to medication, so much of what happened to Ava and her brother simply wouldn’t have happened. The mafia isn’t behind the ruination of her life, and, in fact, several of her father’s mafia brothers co-parent the kids more successfully than Ava’s dad or other relatives. If Orloff’s goal was to show how the mafia ruins families, she was unsuccessful. In order to completely destroy Ava’s life and achieve the pathos she intended, Orloff had to introduce other mafia-unrelated elements into her story. And that makes all of Ava’s sad life just seem rather manipulated and manipulative.
As for the story being “an unflinching and unsparing look at life within the criminal underbelly of New York” – it isn’t that either. The mafia is pure background here. The reader gets no sense of how Frank O’Neil runs his business, what his day-to-day life is like, why he does the things he does, or even how often he does them. There is a small sub-plot in the story that involves a movie being made about Frank’s life. Ava is very upset at the movie director’s vision because she feels he is glamorizing the mafia. But this makes no sense, as there is very little to glamorize. Ava and her family lived in a tenement apartment their whole lives. There were no servants, no lavish dinners or parties. They went to bars and mingled with the common folk. Money was never plentiful. Frank did not have string of women. He seems to have been purely small time, living from “paycheck” to “paycheck.” His life is hardly movie material.
Additionally, Orloff’s characterization of Ava and her family is superficial. Frank is probably most layered, in that he is shown as a sometime caring father and husband and a ruthless criminal. Ava is 100% victim. Tom is mentally unstable and emotionally paralyzed. Orloff states several times what a “good boy” Tom was in order to establish how life in Hell’s Kitchen ruined him, but she does little to show the audience his youthful goodness. Ava’s romantic relationships aren’t credible or developed, and therefore, the book’s ending is unconvincing. Most of the other characters are one- dimensional.
The Roofer failed for me on many levels. Orloff’s writing was smooth, and the Irish mafia is a potentially interesting backdrop for fiction, but neither of these factors change the fact that this is a depressing book written to be depressing. I have space in my heart for another story about the hard life in New York City’s tenements – A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. If you’re looking for a cast of complicated characters who struggle with poverty and addiction, I would recommend that one over The Roofer.