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the birthday party

18 may 2008

Stanley Alpert's memoir The Birthday Party is characterized in review/blurbs as "improbable," "bizarre," and (by Joseph Wambaugh) "too wild to be fiction." These remarks are the common currency of true-crime book reviews, but in Alpert's case they are spot-on.

In January 1998, Alpert was walking along Tenth Street in Manhattan one night, minding his own business, carrying a box of Entenmann's chocolate-chip cookies. Three robbers sprang from a cruising Lexus, blindfolded Alpert, extorted his ATM card and PIN number from him, withdrew some money from his bank account, and then took him to Brooklyn, where they held him at gunpoint for just over 24 hours.

Alpert was pretty sure, at several points, that he would be killed. At the time, he was an Assistant U.S. Attorney involved in civil environmental litigation. The kidnapping was unrelated to his work – it was purely random – but Alpert knew from his long legal experience that kidnapping victims rarely survive. And his captors knew that he was a federal prosecutor, likely to bring down the wrath of the law upon them.

Yet the robbers released Alpert the next evening, dropping him off in Prospect Park, even giving him a $20 bill for cabfare home. Were they nice guys? Morons? Both? Were they drugged to the point of insouciance, or jaded by poverty, abuse, and gangsta rap to a point beyond not valuing human life, the point where they didn't even value their own freedom to rob again?

A crime committed against an Assistant U.S. Attorney is both a local and a federal case, and within moments of Alpert's release, the NYPD and the FBI were on the trail of his kidnappers. (Actually, for a few hours, the authorities didn't quite believe Alpert's story. His surviving an abduction was so improbable that they suspected him of cooking it up to cover a night of debauchery. Corroborating details flooded in so quickly, however, that their initial skepticism was quickly overcome.)

The three kidnappers and four of their accomplices were soon captured, and all but one ended up serving time; most are still in prison. The key theme of Alpert's memoir is their utter disregard even for the self-destructive consequences of their actions. NYPD detective Ronni Haas characterizes the criminals:

They don't care about anything except material things for them, their stature in whatever group they're hanging out in, and nobody else means anything. . . . They don't care. Ya know what, selfish people like that — it's only a matter of time before they say, "Okay, let's kill 'im. Hey, let's see what it's like." (206)
When they were caught and tried, the kidnappers seemed to treat the entire experience as a joke, utterly unfazed by the prospect of long prison sentences. One of them even hatched a conspiracy to kill his own defense attorney, out of pure pique. That attorney, veteran lawyer Jack Evseroff, remarked
I never faced this kind of nonsense in all my years . . . These perpetrators had a complete, total disregard of the system — of the values of the system and the meaning of the system. You don't see that — very, very unusual. (312)

New York City was a much safer place in 1998 than it had been in 1978 or 1988, and it is still safer today. As I was reading The Birthday Party, I carried my copy around the same Greenwich Village streets where Alpert was abducted, without any fear and without much of the continuous, stress-laden high alertness I used to exercise on Manhattan streets decades ago.

I am skeptical of claims that human nature is getting better or worse, but The Birthday Party is a cautionary tale. Even as the city has become superficially and statistically safer, there is evidence here that a new kind of criminal is being generated in its absolute depths, a kind of soulless creature who just doesn't connect with reality, even in the interests of self-preservation.

Or was it ever thus? Have people like Alpert's ice-cold scary kidnappers always been among us, just never as brilliantly captured in literature? Testimonies here vary, from Haas, who has seen the type, to Evseroff, who considers them a new breed. Whatever their provenance, these villains are a powerful argument for a pessimistic view of human nature.

Intriguingly, Alpert's Birthday Party has an eerily apposite literary model that it never explicitly invokes (unless I just rushed past the allusion in my page-turning haste). The model is Harold Pinter's play The Birthday Party, where some evil-to-the-core villains torture a captive birthday boy named Stanley. The parallel is so outrageous that I wonder if Alpert deliberately avoided invoking Pinter because he didn't want to add to his tale's sheer improbability. Life is known to imitate art, but this is an extreme case.

Alpert, Stanley N. The Birthday Party: A memoir of survival. 2007. New York: Berkley, 2008.

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