National Book Award winner Bair (Saul Steinberg, 2012, etc.) examines the life and legend of infamous crime boss Al Capone (1899-1947).
In the 70 years since Capone’s death, America’s fascination with this underworld figure remains as strong as ever. He’s been the subject of countless biographies, his legendary status ingrained in popular culture as an inspiration for the 1930s pre-code film Scarface and, more recently, the popular HBO series Boardwalk Empire. The story of Capone’s rise and fall has long been familiar. He began his criminal career in Brooklyn during the height of Prohibition, involved with businesses ranging from bootlegging to gambling to prostitution, eventually leading to his supreme, albeit brief, reign in Chicago running multimillion-dollar operations. His surprisingly rapid downfall was caused by a conviction for tax evasion, and his prison stints included several years at the notorious Alcatraz Penitentiary. Upon his release in 1939, his final years were diminished by the long-terms effects of syphilis, which led to his early death. Bair attempts to uncover the more personal side of his story, claiming an authoritative position based on the cooperation of extended family members and exclusive access to personal and archival documents. Unfortunately, unlike the author’s previous excellent biographies, the results here are mixed, revealing few new facts or fresh insights. “My intention was to look at his public behavior within the context of his personal life, to see how the two might possibly be interrelated, and how the one might have had influence or bearing on the other,” she writes. “This was not an easy task, and like his family members I still wonder if it is possible to arrive at that curious postmodern concept of ‘the real truth.’ " In this case, it seems not; the “real” Capone remains a mystery.
A serviceable addition to the extensive existing scholarship. Though intelligent and thoughtfully documented, considering the source material and colorful subject, the book is a somewhat anemic read, lacking the narrative verve readers expect from Bair.