Nick Santora --- a former lawyer who has written for and/or produced several television series such as “The Sopranos,” “Law & Order,” “Prison Break” and “The Guardian” --- can now add “novelist” to his impressive resume. His debut introduces readers to Robert Principe, the son of a skilled but humble Bensonhurst carpenter who worked to send him to law school. Principe made it, not just to any law school but to Columbia Law School. He graduated, passed the bar exam and set up shop in the old neighborhood, full of grand plans to help the downtrodden and get rich doing it.
A rising tide lifts all boats; first, however, one’s ship must come in. Principe’s never makes it past the horizon, even with the unconditional love of his father, who thinks he is the greatest guy who ever walked the earth, and his wife. At the point we meet Principe, his practice is slowly but surely failing. He is robbing Peter, the mortgage company, to pay Paul, the law office landlord. And his wife --- whom he positively adores --- has just announced that she’s pregnant.
Santora sets things up beautifully here. Principe is a likable, even an admirable, guy who --- at least initially --- isn’t doing anything wrong; it’s just that he’s not doing enough of the right things. Principe’s best friend Roland, who is also an attorney (and an extremely successful one at that), tries to give him advice, but Principe sloughs it off. However, he still does not know what to do and is rapidly running out of options.
Things turn around for Principe after a chance encounter with his cousin, Jackie. Principe and Jackie, inseparable as children, chose different career paths: Principe became an attorney, while Jackie became a legbreaker for the local mob. These paths converge when Principe concocts, on the spot, a scheme to solve his cash flow problems and Jackie’s collection shortages. The fact that it involves fraud weighs on Principe’s conscience, but by the time he decides to back out, it’s too late; he is in the hole and cannot stop shoveling.
Before too long, Principe is making more money, but his scheme is unraveling --- and his business partners are not exactly the understanding types. Principe has to make some quick and tough choices, which make his old ones, such as who to pay and who to let slide, seem like a piece of cake. And he must make those decisions quickly, as he has people from both sides of the law after him.
Santora, as one might expect from his work on “The Sopranos,” has a masterful ability to capture the nuances --- spoken and unspoken --- of relationships, and he does so marvelously here as he presents a life falling apart in increments during a quest to acquire what was in fact possessed all along. Santora’s dark humor is also present, in buckets. If you’re not laughing after every few pages of SLIP & FALL and feeling somewhat guilty for it, then you’re not paying attention. If you don’t see yourself in here among Santora’s finely drawn characters, then you’re not looking. This may well be the first great book of the summer.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 23, 2011