Buck up, Sopranos buffs: Tony and the gang may be gone, but Breslin’s steely look at mob life in the glory—and gory—days will take some of the sting away.
Breslin (The Church That Forgot Christ, 2004, etc.) is no softie, but that doesn’t keep him from harboring a soft spot for a real-life Livia Soprano known memorably as Big Mama, who remarks of her grandson’s bust, “I told him. You got to do two things. First, you got to rob the bank. Then you got to get away. He forgot.” The grandson, Joe Gallo, was renowned for many things, among them threatening “clients” who were late on payments with a lion locked away in his basement. The rat of the title, a Jewish fellow traveler named Burt Kaplan, knows such things and tells, shaking up the middle-class world of the mobsters, whom another fellow traveler, Klein the Lawyer, defends thus: “How could he commit a crime? He lives in a house.” Homeowners or not, the mobsters of Breslin’s day didn’t court publicity and were instead jealously secretive. The author notes that there were five mob families in the city, “and I heard of some of them only because I lived on 101st Avenue”—not far, that is, from a club where old-timey crooks played cards, secure in J. Edgar Hoover’s declaration that there was no such thing as the Mafia. Breslin mingles reportage and trial transcripts with his own acute, often humorous notes on life then and now. These days, he growls, the government is in the gambling business, and that former depravity has now become “a civic virtue to lose the rent and all other money you didn’t have on rigged games of chance.” All things considered, it’s clear that Breslin prefers the old days and old ways, bloody though they were.
Smart and stinging—Breslin in fine form, which means a winner.