Forget all the press. James “Whitey” Bulger wasn’t the only mobster to come out of Boston. This latest title from Marc Songini promises to tell us all about Joe “The Animal” Barboza, an especially ruthless mobster who had not only a soft spot for killing but for poetry and letter writing, as well. Boston’s brand of organized crime remains a public fascination and Songini could have delivered a most illuminating chapter in its story. Instead, he’s given us an unwieldy book that often tries too hard to include all of the players, rather than giving us a thorough portrait of a cold-blooded killer as a young artist.
Songini, who is apparently a capable historical writer and journalist, eschews many of his skills as the former and feeds steroids to the latter. He spits nails with his prose, offering sentence fragments and other hardboiled devices when articulate, thoughtful writing would do. There are some nice lines, including Nelson Algren-isms such as “A community gets the government, but also, possibly, the criminals it deserves”, although the late master of Chicago street style would have made the sentence more succinct: A community gets the government—and the criminals—it deserves.
Elsewhere, he stretches ideas beyond their breaking point, making the reader reassemble them with Krazy Glue and chicken wire. To wit: “Like Rome, Providence sat on seven hills, but Boston—although larger and richer—served as its Byzantium.” (Don’t worry, it gets worse, to the point that no amount of anything can string it back together.)
He follows that with another would-be zinger: “Pragmatic, Raymond judged men by the contents of their wallets—not the vowel configuration of their surnames.” (OK. We’ll give him that one. And suggest once more that it’s worthy of a lesser draft of a lesser Algren story.)
But he’s inconsistent. There’s this, the opening line of the first chapter: “On September 20, 1932, was born the infant destined to mutate into ‘one of the worst men on the face of the earth.” It isn’t just the tangled syntax that seems more fitting to writing of, say, at least 1847, but the showiness of “mutate”. Mutate? Really?
In the more than 300 pages here there are more than apt examples of writing that bugs and bothers.
At times one has to wonder if Songini really wants to write in langue de la rue, as if he’s trying to impress the men he’s writing about with how tough he can sound from the keyboard of his Mac. Maybe that’s too harsh and too close to an attack on Songini the artist and Songini the person, and it’s not meant to be, but too often we’re reminded of both in the body of this work, unable to separate the writing from the writer and escape to a place where we’re not holding a book but instead living the story the author wants to tell. There is a romantic element to the mob life and certainly Songini is seduced by it but in turn fails to seduce us.
He misses many chances to provide important historical comments. He shortchanges us on why Robert Kennedy’s decision to go after organized crime was surprising and far-reaching. And for someone who has never lived in the neck of the woods of which our author writes, navigating the psychology of the place becomes more difficult when we aren’t given access to how the very heart of said place beats. In short: For a story rooted in place, there isn’t much place, there.
And there isn’t much character there, either. This is a work that appears to be somewhat biographical (Right?) in nature, but the main character’s placement is quickly usurped by this other guy and that, to the point that the gangsters become almost as anonymous as pedestrians knocked off in a first person shooter video game. The body count mounts like it might in a slasher flick and we quickly lose sight of the political and personal dimensions of each kill and by half way through we’re desensitized to what should be a riveting and shocking tale. In fact, if your find yourself looking up after ever 500 words or so it’s not your attention span that’s gone to pot, it’s that the writing makes the experience too dizzying to comprehend, too incomprehensible to focus upon.
You can muddle your way through to the end of this book but doing so doesn’t prove much more than you have the stamina to wade through a story that you’ll ultimately forget. Or maybe one you’ll never really understand. It’s too bad all around, because this is a story worth telling and Barboza (He is the guy we’re supposed to follow, right?) seems like the kind of cat you’d want to know more about, to study more closely. But you’ll probably find yourself looking up information on Whitey Bulger instead, shaking your head, and wondering how the heck he got away with it all. Too bad, that. Too bad.