Jimmy Breslin stared helplessly out the window of his office in The Daily News one afternoon in the 1970s, seeking inspiration — through a haze of cigar smoke — from the nondescript facade of a building across 42nd Street.
He betrayed no visible brain activity, not even a flicker of the genius that infused his columns, one of which was close to being overdue. I know because I was his anxious editor. But his blank stare was an illusion. Mr. Breslin was eavesdropping. He was mining a rich lode of gossip from his assistant, Ann Marie, who was chatting on the telephone outside his office door.
Mr. Breslin is a very good listener. Almost imperceptibly, his head began to turn until he finally fixed his gaze on Ann Marie, and in one of those unheralded but defining moments in journalism, a series of columns about the underside of life in the Big City — with the names changed to protect the guilty and Mr. Breslin himself — was born.
In “The Good Rat: A True Story” (Ecco Press), Mr. Breslin recalls another of his eureka moments, which took place in a Brooklyn courtroom where he had gone to research a book about two cops turned Mafia hit men. One was fat and sad-eyed, the other thin and listless.
“Am I going to write 70,000 words about these two?” Mr. Breslin asked himself. “Rather I lay brick.” But when the trial started two years ago, he recalls, an unknown name on the prosecution witness list “turns the proceeding into something that thrills: the autobiography of Burton Kaplan, criminal.” Mr. Breslin had found his subject, a Brooklyn Tech dropout, father of a judge, who was “a great merchant, too great, and after he sold everything that did belong to him, he sold things that did not.”
And lucky for us. His book ingeniously synthesizes Burton Kaplan’s bizarre biography, his testimony, and Mr. Breslin’s memoirs of his own earlier exploits and encounters with characters who punctuated his columns but are mostly dead, imprisoned, or hidden in witness protection programs.
“You can drink with legitimate people if you want,” Mr. Breslin writes of his social circle, adding that he is a product of nights when the mobster Fat Tony Salerno looked around the Copacabana, scowled at him and asked, “ ‘Didn’t you go where I told you to?’ ”
Where had Mr. Breslin been told to go? That morning, he had encountered Mr. Salerno at a court engagement where the mobster complained, “You look like a bum,” and slipped him an East Side tailor’s business card.
“Tell him you want a suit made right away so you don’t make me ashamed I know you,” Mr. Salerno ordered.
The book is cleverly constructed, opening with an annotated cast of characters, and it delivers canny anthropological insights into organized crime (“The feds soon realized all they had to do was follow guys who kiss each other and they’d know the whole Mafia”). Mr. Breslin also criticizes John Gotti for having “violated New York’s revered rush-hour rules when he had Paul Castellano killed in the middle of it.”
Mr. Breslin’s account of a victim who was killed by mistake belies the idea that there are no innocent bystanders. And every page reveals his talent for putting a twinkle in your mind’s eye (the lawyer Bruce Cutler wore “a light khaki summer suit that could have used 10 pounds less to cover”). The book is Jimmy Breslin at his best.
Thanks to Sam Roberts
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