Rollicking Irish-flavored tale about an immigrant who rose to Tammany Hall, retired to luxury and horses in Palm Springs and his native land, but was forever shunned by the high society he craved.
As he did with Michael Collins in Rebel Heart (2000, not reviewed), the Irish O’Farrell delivers a sprawling story of a violent, corrupt and—until now—despised minor player in New York political history. Born into a Protestant landholding family, the real-life Richard “Boss” Croker (1841–1922) came to the US when, O’Farrell suggests, his family’s estate was bankrupted by the potato famine, Croker’s womanizing, and his ne’er-do-well father, Eyre Coote Croker. After working as a vet in Cincinnati, father Eyre brings his family back to New York, where Richard demonstrates remarkable talents as a machinist, horse rider, brawler, and, most significantly, protégé of Mike Walsh, colorful Irish powerbroker working his way into the Tammany machine through gang violence, union control, and the shrewd manipulation of human nature to reward those loyal and wreak bitter vengeance on all the others. O’Farrell contrasts young Croker’s wily rise with the fictionalized misfortunes of other Irish characters, such as poor Nellie Hurley, an innocent serving girl who, after being raped by Croker’s father, gives birth to a son and raises him relatively unmolested inside a New York brothel thanks to of a lesbian relationship with the madam. As for Croker, he left New York with a vast fortune, but did he really help finance the Irish war of independence? O’Farrell’s need to make Croker a hero for all seasons falters at the end, with the hero marrying an “Indian princess” young enough to be his granddaughter and barely surviving a lawsuit from his children that would have declared him demented.
A winner-takes-all scramble for power so brutal, arrogant, and cunning that one craves for a straight biography that might sift the truth from the sheer heroic. Still, delightful Irish dialect and a gas-lit New York.