Penguin Random House
288 Pages; Print, $27.00
Sunny’s Nights is a memoir by Tim Sultan which takes readers on a strange trip into the unique world of a bar in Red Hook, Brooklyn owned and operated by the one and only Antonio “Sunny” Balzano. Besides being about Sunny, his bar, and Red Hook, Sultan’s memoir is about friendship and the importance of loyalty, not only to the people and places that we love but also to the memories that last.
Sultan strikes a remarkable balance between his love of wanderlust and his respect for being firmly rooted in one place. As a child of a Foreign Service officer, he grew up in the rice paddies of Laos, the forests of Germany, as well as equatorial West Africa. By 1995 he was already a seasoned vagabond when, on his way home from a Woody Allen movie, he missed a left turn and fate brought him to a little bar on Conover Street. It was there that Sultan met Sunny, eventually befriended him, and decided to stick around for a while. Sunny’s Nights is a colorful chronicle of the rewarding friendship that Sultan struck with this singular man. Sultan shows the ultimate respect, loyalty, and love for his subject matter as he writes with a big, open heart—the heart that he, no doubt, left in Red Hook.
As a whole, the memoir covers a lot of ground. To truly understand Sunny we need to understand the history of his bar, and to understand that we need to know what Red Hook was like back when Sunny’s grandfather established the place. Sultan provides a concise history of Red Hook, along with a map and photographs, highlighting in particular the neighborhood’s seedy underbelly. He gives us scenes of cars burning in the street, men getting beat up on the corner, and scores of longshoremen stopping in for beers. The history of Red Hook is one of Irish and Italian mobsters, and Sultan pays special attention to La Mano Nera, the notorious and nebulous Black Hand, which ran extortion rackets and shakedowns in the neighborhood. Sultan even provides reproductions of a few death threats written in Italian by alleged members of the Black Hand. This is the Red Hook that Sunny grew up in—“Dead Hook”—or, as Sultan writes: “a place to bring garbage and corpses.”
But perhaps Sultan’s greatest accomplishment is preserving the unique voice of a Brooklynite from a Brooklyn that is fading away. Sunny’s vernacular, his aesthetic inclinations, and his strange locutions make him incredibly interesting, and the unconditional respect that he extends to all people makes him equally welcoming. In Sunny, Sultan had “never encountered a more arresting presence.” Sunny recited Shakespeare and Beckett at will; he touted Picasso, Cezanne, and de Kooning as his greatest artistic influences; he embarked on a spiritual journey to India and unveiled charlatans. The picture we get of Sunny is rounded out, unapologetic, and real. “Sunny belonged,” Sultan writes, “to a vanishing breed of barstool rhetorician, which in him seemed to have reached its apotheosis.” This is a portrait of the artist as a barkeep.
While Sultan’s ear is well-trained, his eye for detail is equally sharp. As readers walk through Sunny’s Bar, one recalls Ishmael’s journey on the Pequod, not necessarily because of the nautical imagery (of which there is plenty at Sunny’s), but in the rich relentlessness of the images, strange objects, the different people and all the places from which they hail. Among the wealth of art on the walls come a proliferation of oddities, such as “a full-sized anchor, a guitar-like instrument made from a bedpan, a bust of JFK, a child’s pair of coil-springed steel ‘Satellite Jumping Shoes’ from the days of Sputnik and Laika,” and so on. The panoply of idiosyncratic detail engulfs the senses and one gets the feeling that, like Melville’s encyclopedic masterpiece, Sunny had managed to pour nearly all of his soul into his bar. In this sense, one...