The Dostoyevskian pleasures of Jimmy Breslin's The Good Rat.

Scrutinizing culture.
July 18 2008 7:24 AM

The Good Rat

The Dostoyevskian pleasures of Jimmy Breslin.

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Cutler milked maximum courtroom drama from this paradox in his closing summation.

A big guy in a big blue pinstripe suit, Cutler started off standing silently in front of the jury box as if contemplating the tragic injustice of Fate in the Sophoclean universe we all are condemned to suffer in.

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Then he went over to the witness stand and gazed at the empty chair where the rat from my high school had been seated and slammed his fist down on the seat and bellowed out—I mean, really bellowed—"A HUNDRED KILOS OF KILLER HEROIN!"

He straightened himself out and adjusted his suit jacket as if brushing off the contagion of evil he had conjured up and walked over to his client (a graying old man), put a gentle avuncular hand on his shoulder, and bellowed, "A TRUCKLOAD OF FROZEN FISH!"

Partaking of the profits of a frozen-fish-truck hijacking had been the slender reed on which the Feds ginned up a RICO indictment against Cutler's alleged capo client—one that could slip in under the statute-of-limitation wire. Without the frozen fish, all the organizational charts in the world couldn't have saved their case.

But to get the frozen fish, they had to allow the rat, the purveyor of A HUNDRED KILOS OF KILLER HEROIN, out on the street.

Back and forth went Cutler, pounding the empty chair, thundering about the KILLER HEROIN, then mocking the Mrs. Paul's haul. The prosecution had made a deal with the devil to put away a harmless old man on an organizational chart!

Anyway, the jury found the deal, shall we say, fishy. Not guilty.

It was seeing this trial that made clear to me what I might have missed in reading Breslin: That what's great about his work is that he has always been able to capture both sides of the mafia, the evil and the banality (the frozen fish). He sees both sides, and he sees the difficult personal, moral, legal, and political dilemmas the transaction with the rat represents. The facets of the human soul bared by the rat and the rat's victim.

Of course, a lot depends on the rat in question. And in Burton Kaplan, "the good rat," a vicious murderer betraying what is left of his soul, Breslin has found a character, a worldview, a mystery that makes this book his summa, his apology pro vita sua. One that explains why Breslin writes about this world; why Breslin characters, at their best, transcend mob caricatures and say something about the human character itself, from the admirable and honorable to the homicidal and psychopathic. The Good Rat scrutinizes this with deeper focus than any of Breslin's previous work as we watch him try out various angles of response to rat-itude. It's part of the drama of the book: Not the unreliable narrator but the undecided narrator. What's "good" about being a rat? Does the betrayer deserve the ninth circle of hell no matter whom he betrays?

The Godfather, at its best, was about America. The Sopranos, at its best, was about the suburbs. In some curious way, The Good Rat is about us.

Still, with Breslin I think what I'll always admire is the sentences. I was flipping through the book, trying to choose one to best illustrate what I meant, when I came upon one I particularly liked and that stayed in my mind. One that made me laugh out loud and then wonder why, every time I saw it:

Somebody always hangs out at a collision shop.

That's all. It's the beginning of a long, convoluted criminal subplot, but the nature of the plot is less relevant than the purity of the sentence. At first it sounds a little bleak and Beckett-like, and then the sentence begins to people a world. Nothing good is going to come out of hanging out at a collision shop. It makes you think that Breslin's stories are all about "collisions" of other types. Of men and morals, of rats and hijacked frozen fish, of murder and forged Peruvian passports sold in Hong Kong.

"Somebody always hangs out at a collision shop." It's Breslin's "all happy families," only for a different kind of family.