Gritty memoir with unusual connections to the criminal underworld, the legal world and Hollywood.
Berg (The Trial Lawyer: What It Takes to Win, 2003) has lived a full life, and it shows in his deft tonal balance between wry humor and embittered fatalism. Despite success as a well-known progressive lawyer, he remains haunted by the grisly murder of his venerated older brother Alan in 1968 by “card carrying” hit man Charles Harrelson (father of actor Woody). At the time, Alan was slandered as a degenerate gambler, which contributed to Harrelson’s acquittal. The author reconciles his brother’s failings with a larger, complex family story, in which the Bergs’ domineering father, having abandoned his traditionally Jewish first wife, labored to ensnare his sons in his own failed dreams. The vivacious hustler Alan joined his father in a tawdry “boiler room” carpet-selling operation aimed at Houston’s poor, a business path whose tangled dealings, Berg argues, actually provoked the murder. The author portrays 1960s-era Houston as a dangerous, seamy swamp, run by a good-ol’-boy network that tolerated violent men like Harrelson and a legal system in which favoritism and bigotry reigned. He shrewdly connects his own hard-knocks career development defending hippies and radicals in Texas with the longer arc of Harrelson’s crimes and eventual punishment, including the weird coda of his celebrity son’s belated efforts to win his release following conviction for a judge’s assassination. To unravel this long-ago narrative, Berg closely reconstructs the investigation and trial, noting how a novice prosecutor faced the state’s best defense attorney, a flinty eccentric known for winning at any cost.
Engrossing family history and an appealingly salacious tale, related in a bemused tone that does not hide the social ugliness and personal heartbreak underneath.