Novelistic study of an iconoclastic criminal in revolutionary times.
Documentarian Folsom (co-author: Mr. Untouchable: The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of Heroin’s Teflon Don, 2007), grittily evokes the period (1950s and ’60s) and the place (New York City) in which the Gallo brothers—Brooklyn jukebox magnates and low-level hoods Joey, Larry and Kid Blast—struggled to rise to the top of the underworld. Jimmy Breslin titled his 1969 novel based on the same characters and events The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, but Folsom, who takes his title from Kerouac, is able to tease some heroism out of his protagonists’ antiheroic lives, particularly that of the poetically inclined Joey. Granted, he was a punk who could only plead the Fifth in answer to Bobby Kennedy’s questions during the 1960 Senate hearings on organized crime. He bragged about hitting Murder Inc.’s Albert Anastasia as he waited for a shave in a Midtown barbershop, and unsuccessfully took on the Profaci crime family in a brazen but poorly executed coup attempt, spending most of the ’60s behind bars on an extortion rap. So how did Joey become the toast of the town from the time of his release until his public 1972 execution at a spaghetti joint in Little Italy? Jerry Orbach, who played the character inspired by him in the film of Breslin’s novel, was among the New York players who treated Crazy Joe like the “King of the Streets,” as an epic song penned by Bob Dylan and dramatist Jacques Levy called him. In prose as tight and hard-boiled as any James Ellroy novel, Folsom focuses on the quirks that made Joey an unusual kind of gangster. He modeled himself after the giggling psychopath played by Richard Widmark in the film noir Kiss of Death; he was fascinated bebop, action painting and existential philosophy; he made alliances across racial lines, including one with Folsom’s previous subject and literary collaborator, Harlem drug dealer Leroy Barnes.
Riveting, richly atmospheric pulp nonfiction.