The Spectator

The Good Rat

The Dostoyevskian pleasures of Jimmy Breslin.

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.

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.)

There’s a passage from Kaplan’s testimony in the trial that helps explain why Breslin prefers Kaplan to Buffet. Here’s Kaplan describing one of his early scams:

In 1993, I was arrested in a conspiracy to sell stolen Peruvian passports. That was also dismissed, because we proved that we believed the passports were legal and that we were selling them in Hong Kong, and the selling of passports in Hong Kong to Chinese people was legal. I flew to China with my lawyer to prove it. The case was dismissed.

A great character: The guy will admit to numerous cold-blooded killings, but he’s sticking to his story that he “believed the passports were legal.” True, he was not officially attached to the Peruvian consulate, as far as I can tell, and he was selling the passports in Hong Kong, which sounds a bit suspect, but in his mind it’s important that the jury not get the wrong idea about him on this matter. Murder, OK—it was part of his job, it has a kind of satanic dignity—but this undignified passport scam is a transgression so small-bore he will not admit to it. Breslin has an unerring ear for such revealing moments.

(One of the things I love about The Good Rat is that it gives trial transcripts the literary stature they deserve. I once spent weeks in a musty Brooklyn court archive, reading through thousands of pages of Gotti-trial testimony and wiretap transcripts, so you can take my word for it: There are priceless treasures there. Found art? Yes, but somebody has to find it. Breslin has a jeweler’s eye. Another great thing about mob-trial testimony is that it validates the impressive accuracy with which Breslin’s dialogue—in both his fiction and his nonfiction—has captured the speech rhythms and tonalities of mob culture over the years. There used to be debate about whether Breslin was putting his words in wiseguys’ mouths in his reporting and his columns. Not true, unless some of them are consciously or unconsciously imitating Breslin. When they testify they talk like Breslin characters.)

As for the murders, well, as Breslin puts it: “Kaplan comes out of all the ages of crime, out of Dostoyevsky, out of the Moors Murders, out of Murder, Inc. A few words spoken by Burt Kaplan on his Brooklyn porch send animals rushing out to kill.”

You wanted Dostoyevsky; you got Dostoyevsky. But it’s not just Breslin imposing it. There’s a scene in The Good Rat, a few lines later, when Breslin is talking to an associate of star mob lawyer Bruce Cutler—who defended the allegedly mob-linked cops—and she’s asking Breslin, “What did you think of the witnesss [Kaplan]?”

“I was just thinking—” Breslin begins.

“Raskolnikov!” she says, invoking the tormented enigmatic killer of Crime and Punishment.

Of course, other mafia writers have written on the moral code of mob life. But Breslin nods to Dostoyevsky here, I think, because, like Dostoyevsky, he has an eye for the comic shabbiness that so often accompanies unadulterated evil, the endless combinations and permutations of the two. And so Breslin on the mafia is really Breslin on the nature of human nature.

He endows the issue of being a rat, even a “good rat,” with moral complexity:

Do we honor the rat, in addition to disdaining him, for making it possible to remove from society men of unmitigated evil, guilty of multiple murders and more if not ratted on? Or does the fact that the rat rids us of murderers who for the most part kill other murderers mean that he deprives us of a service, the “self-cleaning oven” effect of mob feuds?

Do we condemn the rat for violating his private oath of honor, even if it’s an oath to an evil criminal conspiracy? And what should the rat think of himself? Breslin’s Kaplan is stricken with remorse (or so he says) for violating his oath. How should we feel about his remorse? It ain’t simple.

“Breslin—that cop! That precinct station genius!” Philip Roth’s Portnoy mutters this to himself, fearing the focus of Breslin’s gimlet eye. (Portnoy was a public official, remember: assistant city commissioner.)

I think Portnoy’s vision of Breslin as avenging moralist is a little too reductive here. Breslin is able to see the moral dilemmas of crooks in all their complications. When Isaiah Berlin wrote of “the crooked timber of humanity,” he wasn’t thinking of the kind of crooked human Breslin specializes in, but he’s talking about the same kind of complex human character.

I can remember a moment that dramatized the complexities of Breslin’s world for me, a moment that opened my eyes to the key subtext in his work: the relationship between banality and evil. I was covering the trial of a lesser-known mob figure for a piece I was writing about powerhouse mob lawyer Bruce Cutler. The government introduced all sorts of complicated organizational charts showing the way Cutler’s client, an alleged capo, exercised power. The government seemed to take the “organized” part of “organized crime” very seriously.

As I recall—this was some 20 years ago—to convict the capo on a heavy-sentence RICO charge, the government needed a crime he was involved with that fell within the statute of limitations. And for that, they needed a rat.

What made this trial of particular interest to me was that the rat in the case was a high-school classmate of mine. Even back then, you could tell he wanted to be a hood, and he hung out with enough hoods—eventually including the defendant, apparently—to qualify for some big-time crime time. Go, Bay Shore High!

And then the Feds flipped him. Caught him dealing heroin, threatened to send him away forever. But he had something they needed. Knowledge of a crime—one within the statute of limitations—that could connect the capo to a RICO. And so they made my high-school bro an offer he didn’t refuse, and there he was testifying about the many jobs he did for the capo in question. Testimony that earned him a new life in the Witness Protection Program. He could be living next door to you now.

The paradox of the Witness Protection Program is one of those moral quandaries that lurk in the subtext of Breslin’s mafia world. How do you weigh the crimes you forgive, excuse, or erase from your rat’s identity against the ones your rat can prove others committed? There are no perfect answers in this wilderness of moral ambiguity that Breslin conjures up.

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.

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.