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.

Jimmy Breslin. Click image to expand
Jimmy Breslin

Please do me a favor, all you people out there who've been praising Jimmy Breslin's latest book, The Good Rat. Stop thinking of Breslin as a great mafia writer, "the consummate mob reporter," as one reviewer put it.

Yes, Breslin is the greatest mafia writer in America. His work on the subject, both fiction and nonfiction, leaves the over-romanticizing of The Godfather and the over-aestheticizing of The Sopranos in the dust. (Goodfellas and Donnie Brasco are the only mob classics that come close.) But Breslin is more than that. He is, I believe, one of the great prose writers in America, period.

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To me, reading a Breslin sentence, finding the finely tuned tonal effects he is a master at, is one of the great pure pleasures of reading.

Pleasure, as a literary virtue, is an underrated but powerful quality. We often distrust or discount as "merely pleasurable" writing that is not all in-your-face Dostoyevskian and tormented. (See the chapter in my book The Shakespeare Wars on the way "the terror of pleasure" makes most academic writing about literature such a mockery.)

And pure pleasure in reading is rare. For some, it's Wodehouse. (Breslin on the much-betrayed "code" of the mafia is like Wodehouse on "The Code of the Woosters" at times.) Or there's the Martin Amis of Money. Among Americans I think of when I think of pure pleasure are Charles Portis, especially in The Dog of the South, and Stanley Elkin in The Dick Gibson Show (especially the "Dr. Behr Bleibtreau" section).

You want pure pleasure in nonfiction? David Foster Wallace's 20,000 words on a five-star luxury cruise ("A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again") come to mind. As does Geuoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage. But, of course, the sacred text—the most exquisite, sustained reading pleasure in the language, fiction or nonfiction, I'd argue—is Nabokov's Pale Fire. Proof that pleasure is not inconsistent with complexity and depth. Pleasure is not the only virtue in literature or the only one to admire. But it's not a value I take lightly.

What I particularly like in Breslin is the pleasure he takes. His palpable enjoyment in deadpan descriptions of the villainous behavior of his characters is infectious, if at times—I think deliberately—a little troubling and thought-provoking. Pleasure in literature can prompt reflection about why we succumb to its temptation.

The Good Rat is a nonfiction account of a mob killer named Burton Kaplan who turns the state's witness against two New York City police detectives who Kaplan claims committed murders for the mob, and it is full of such descriptions. Here's Breslin on Kaplan's partner, one Anthony "Gaspipe" Casso:

[T]he son of a longshoreman who was called Gaspipe because he used one to break heads. Young Anthony took the same nickname and the same weapon. I don't know much more about the father, but I do know that the son batted right handed.

Somehow the metaphorical invocation of America's sacred national game is just the right touch.

And here is Breslin speaking about the social habits of "Gaspipe" and Kaplan:

Kaplan described Anthony Casso as a homicidal maniac. Still, Burt had "Gaspipe" at his house for dinner a couple nights a week.

What Breslin has done in the whole corpus of his mafia writing is what so many writers we admire have done: He's taken a microcosmic society and made it a world. He gives us access to a unique, idiosyncratic social milieu, describing all its complex, intersecting relationships. He shows us how mobsters' social conventions and their transgressions—like those of Chekhov's disaffected aristocrats, Cheever's suburban commuters, Jane Austen's country gentry—underpin all their narratives.

It's true that the characters and deeds are somewhat more brutal in Breslin than in Austen, but the questions, in a sense, are the same: Whom is it proper to have dinner with?

Here is Breslin on why he prefers to write about the people in his world:

I can barely handle legitimate people. They all proclaim immaculate honesty, but each day they commit the most serious of all felonies, being a bore. To whom do you care to listen, Warren Buffet, the second-richest and single most boring person on earth, or Burt Kaplan out of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn?

And in Breslin, pleasure is not inconsistent with Dostoyevskian depths, if that's what you want, you super-serious-minded reader. Breslin gives you both.

Consider Breslin's titular "good rat": Burt Kaplan (of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn), who confessed to some dozen or so murders for the mob in addition to the ones he says he hired the cops to do. (The cops' trial is the heart of The Good Rat.)