The Good Rat
The Dostoyevskian pleasures of Jimmy Breslin.
There's a passage from Kaplan's testimony in the trial that helps explain why Breslin prefers Kaplan to Buffet. Here's Kaplan describing one of his early scams:
In 1993, I was arrested in a conspiracy to sell stolen Peruvian passports. That was also dismissed, because we proved that we believed the passports were legal and that we were selling them in Hong Kong, and the selling of passports in Hong Kong to Chinese people was legal. I flew to China with my lawyer to prove it. The case was dismissed.
A great character: The guy will admit to numerous cold-blooded killings, but he's sticking to his story that he "believed the passports were legal." True, he was not officially attached to the Peruvian consulate, as far as I can tell, and he was selling the passports in Hong Kong, which sounds a bit suspect, but in his mind it's important that the jury not get the wrong idea about him on this matter. Murder, OK—it was part of his job, it has a kind of satanic dignity—but this undignified passport scam is a transgression so small-bore he will not admit to it. Breslin has an unerring ear for such revealing moments.
(One of the things I love about The Good Rat is that it gives trial transcripts the literary stature they deserve. I once spent weeks in a musty Brooklyn court archive, reading through thousands of pages of Gotti-trial testimony and wiretap transcripts, so you can take my word for it: There are priceless treasures there. Found art? Yes, but somebody has to find it. Breslin has a jeweler's eye. Another great thing about mob-trial testimony is that it validates the impressive accuracy with which Breslin's dialogue—in both his fiction and his nonfiction—has captured the speech rhythms and tonalities of mob culture over the years. There used to be debate about whether Breslin was putting his words in wiseguys' mouths in his reporting and his columns. Not true, unless some of them are consciously or unconsciously imitating Breslin. When they testify they talk like Breslin characters.)
As for the murders, well, as Breslin puts it: "Kaplan comes out of all the ages of crime, out of Dostoyevsky, out of the Moors Murders, out of Murder, Inc. A few words spoken by Burt Kaplan on his Brooklyn porch send animals rushing out to kill."
You wanted Dostoyevsky; you got Dostoyevsky. But it's not just Breslin imposing it. There's a scene in The Good Rat, a few lines later, when Breslin is talking to an associate of star mob lawyer Bruce Cutler—who defended the allegedly mob-linked cops—and she's asking Breslin, "What did you think of the witnesss [Kaplan]?"
"I was just thinking—" Breslin begins.
"Raskolnikov!" she says, invoking the tormented enigmatic killer of Crime and Punishment.
Of course, other mafia writers have written on the moral code of mob life. But Breslin nods to Dostoyevsky here, I think, because, like Dostoyevsky, he has an eye for the comic shabbiness that so often accompanies unadulterated evil, the endless combinations and permutations of the two. And so Breslin on the mafia is really Breslin on the nature of human nature.
He endows the issue of being a rat, even a "good rat," with moral complexity:
Do we honor the rat, in addition to disdaining him, for making it possible to remove from society men of unmitigated evil, guilty of multiple murders and more if not ratted on? Or does the fact that the rat rids us of murderers who for the most part kill other murderers mean that he deprives us of a service, the "self-cleaning oven" effect of mob feuds?
Do we condemn the rat for violating his private oath of honor, even if it's an oath to an evil criminal conspiracy? And what should the rat think of himself? Breslin's Kaplan is stricken with remorse (or so he says) for violating his oath. How should we feel about his remorse? It ain't simple.
"Breslin—that cop! That precinct station genius!" Philip Roth's Portnoy mutters this to himself, fearing the focus of Breslin's gimlet eye. (Portnoy was a public official, remember: assistant city commissioner.)
I think Portnoy's vision of Breslin as avenging moralist is a little too reductive here. Breslin is able to see the moral dilemmas of crooks in all their complications. When Isaiah Berlin wrote of "the crooked timber of humanity," he wasn't thinking of the kind of crooked human Breslin specializes in, but he's talking about the same kind of complex human character.
I can remember a moment that dramatized the complexities of Breslin's world for me, a moment that opened my eyes to the key subtext in his work: the relationship between banality and evil. I was covering the trial of a lesser-known mob figure for a piece I was writing about powerhouse mob lawyer Bruce Cutler. The government introduced all sorts of complicated organizational charts showing the way Cutler's client, an alleged capo, exercised power. The government seemed to take the "organized" part of "organized crime" very seriously.
As I recall—this was some 20 years ago—to convict the capo on a heavy-sentence RICO charge, the government needed a crime he was involved with that fell within the statute of limitations. And for that, they needed a rat.
What made this trial of particular interest to me was that the rat in the case was a high-school classmate of mine. Even back then, you could tell he wanted to be a hood, and he hung out with enough hoods—eventually including the defendant, apparently—to qualify for some big-time crime time. Go, Bay Shore High!
And then the Feds flipped him. Caught him dealing heroin, threatened to send him away forever. But he had something they needed. Knowledge of a crime—one within the statute of limitations—that could connect the capo to a RICO. And so they made my high-school bro an offer he didn't refuse, and there he was testifying about the many jobs he did for the capo in question. Testimony that earned him a new life in the Witness Protection Program. He could be living next door to you now.
The paradox of the Witness Protection Program is one of those moral quandaries that lurk in the subtext of Breslin's mafia world. How do you weigh the crimes you forgive, excuse, or erase from your rat's identity against the ones your rat can prove others committed? There are no perfect answers in this wilderness of moral ambiguity that Breslin conjures up.
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.
Photograph of Jimmy Breslin by Matt Carasella/PatrickMcMullan.com/Sipa Press.