Friday, May 06, 2022

19. The Big Brothers by Irving Shulman

I picked this up mainly for the cover and because I thought it would have some cool writing about organized crime of the period.  I enjoyed The Amboy Dukes, but more as a historical, culturally important book in the genre and was not necessarily looking to read more of Shulman's work.  I am glad I did take it because it was a better book than I expected, on its own merits, as well as being indeed a great look into the syndicate in the late 60s.  Even more fun, the outfit in The Big Brothers that we see is mostly Jewish and this gives it a distinct feel as well as some good background on how these guys came up.  Finally, this is actually the follow-up to the Amboy Dukes as it continues the story of that street gang and how they grow up to become big-time mobsters.

The premise is great.  Three young toughs (and one's moll) are sent by their boss to take over a failed resort and casino investment in Las Vegas.  They proved themselves well on the streets to their boss, kindly but tough and scheming Itzik Yanowitz (a great character!) but it is a bit of a stretch and a risk to ask them to take over a hotel where the previous scrammed with the money and left to ruin.  The book has an interesting pattern of weaving between sections of great detail, focusing on getting the casino set up for instance, then accelerating ahead to the next phases and challenges in their existence.  It makes it somewhat uneven in feeling. Is it a procedural or an epic?  In the end, it goes for the latter and I have to say does also succeed in giving us a lot of really entertaining procedure, both with how the criminals work and how a resort casino was run in that period.

Another element that makes the book somewhat uneven is the writing style. It's not bad, actually quite readable and the content is so rich that I found myself easily turning the pages.  Shulman jumps around from perspective, not just from the characters' minds but going from a detailed description of the muscles on their faces to their thoughts and then to a more objective perspective.  It also gets a bit melodramatic and maudlin at times.  He really bears down on the stress and anxiety and the generally unpleasant price one pays to avoid the rat race and live large as a gangster.  It gets rough at times too, there are two particularly brutal beatings that are hard to read.

It's interesting to read this book written in 1959, written 10 years before The Godfather and yet containing so much material that is now considered the sole domain of Scorsese.  I wonder if he read this book, because half of Casino is in here.  This one is going on the book shelf. 



No comments: