ORGANIZED CRIMES by Nicholas von Hoffman


Email this review


Coming-of-age among the gangsters of early-1930s Chicago--in an initially engaging, uneven first novel that tries to blend Runyonesque charm, psychosexual drama, and more generalized, thematic historical workups. Von Hoffman's not-quite-convincing hero is young Allan Archibald, a silver-spoonish banker's son who starts out equally innocent about sex and the real world. In the absorbing opening chapters, however, sociology-student Allan witnesses a gangland slaying on the street--and is soon being encouraged (by his professor, by comely classmate Irena) to do close-up research into Chicago's mobster subculture. He hangs out at the Capone mob's favorite coffee-shop, gets little data from his first interviews. (Patsy O'Dea, slugger for the Cleaners and Dyers Union, says only ""Die!"") But eventually Allan is sort-of-adopted by dangerous Gunner McGurn; he runs a Capone-backed soup kitchen, enjoys hearing mob gossip, jaws with Frank Nitti. Meanwhile, despite a developing passion for virginal, bright, classy, but low-born Irena, Allan is being seduced by Gunner's curvy young moll/wife Mona--with an A-to-Z sexual education (the etiquette of cunnilingus) and an obsession that's almost purely carnal. ""The good Allan loved the good Irena and the bad Allan could spend hours naked with this woman, drinking, having sex, and gossiping about gangsters, politicians, and other crooks."" Eventually, then, Allan will be punished for his lust and his mindless gangster-mania: he and Irena try, but fail, to prevent the assassination of Mayor Cermak of Chicago; and then adulterous Mona is murdered, with another man dying in Allan's place--leading to guilt, a break with Irena, and apparent redemption after a few years of brooding. (""I hurt people. . . people get hurt. And I got hurt too. . . ."") After that beguiling beginning, then, Allan's growing-up saga becomes a little simplistic, a little moralizing (in combination with the belabored carnality), more than a little unconvincing. It's also more than a little unfocused--since von Hoffman spreads his narration into a variety of related and not-so-related subplots: the machinations of Chicago's Cardinal Mundelein; the banking woes of Allan's prissy father; the war between the mob and Mayor Cermak; the psychotic thoughts of Cermak's assassin-to-be; the Polish-American home life of Allan's sweetheart Irena. A hard-working but uneasy hybrid, then, neither fully satisfying as sexual bildungsroman nor as socio-political panorama--but absorbing and amusing at the start, often intriguing thereafter, and rich in Chicago-wise atmosphere throughout.

Pub Date: Oct. 10th, 1984
Publisher: Harper & Row