Monday, July 13, 2009

Book Report: "The Mad Ones," By Tom Folsom

"The Mad Ones: Crazy Joe Gallo and the Revolution at the Edge of the Underworld"suffers from the limited trajectory of its subject.

In the same way Joey Gallo's life never really took off, neither does this book.

"The Mad Ones" is a guilty pleasure read for those who like a good Mob yarn. It is also a great portrait of the era in which its anti-hero leaves his bloodstained mark.

Here is a tale about a low-grade, psychotic guy who sallied forth into Greenwich Village just as the sixties were taking off and willingly let some of its rebellious patina rub off on him.

After getting introduced to the scene by his future wife, Jeffie, "Joey decided to make a go for it in the Village. He took up painting, like the abstract expressionists brawling at the Cedar Tavern, a few blocks from the pad. His portrait of Jeffie burst with animal energy, an uncanny likeness painted completely from memory during a brief stint at Rikers Island. Joey was clawing his way up from the bottom, unlike Jeffie's first husband, jazz icon Gerry Mulligan."

Which is all well and good, but, as it turns out, it's the "Rikers Island" reference that does a better part of the foreshadowing.

In his "My Last Sigh," the surrealist film director Luis Bunuel meditated upon the implications of Spain's Civil War and concluded that, "all the wealth and culture on the Falangist [right wing] side ought to have limited the horror. Yet the worst excesses came from them; which is why, alone with my dry martini, I have my doubts about the benefits of money and culture."

The point being (other than clumsy erudition) that Joey Gallo read Camus, was enthralled with Nietsche, but was, in the end, still a cheap punk.

The storyline, such as it is, follows the Gallo boys through mishap after mishap in their effort to reign supreme on the big Mafia family scene befuddling New York City at the time.

Gallo's bohemianism isn't really that pronounced. He's more of a classical night club and cocktail guy from the prior era. And we have to take the word of those whose testimony author Tom Folsom has gathered or researched as to the extent of his vaunted charisma.

And that's because he is a rotten person with a rotten pedigree, up from the juke-box industry, as it were:

"Joey was a little guy, listed by the NYPD as 5 feet 6 inches. Small, like the toughest guys in the B-pictures, Jimmy Cagney or George Raft, the steely henchman in the original gangster epic, 'Scarface.' In his teens, ruling the corner of Fourth Avenue and Sackett Street as King of the Cockroach Gang, Joey flipped a silver dollar, Raft's signature move. Joey wasn't going to be stealing copper piping from Brooklyn brownstones for the rest of his life. He was going to make it to the big town. Give big lunks the score.

"'I could have worked my way up to head soda jerk at Whelan's Drug Store,' said Joey, 'but what kind of life is that for a guy like me?'"

Colorful, sure, but rotten.

His attempt to shake down a "two-bit check casher" named Teddy Moss will horrify anybody who makes an honest living, feeds a family, and doesn't employ a personal bodyguard. It is rendered pathetic by the fact Gallo botches it and ends up in jail.

For "The Mad Ones," Folsom adopted a clipped, noir-ish style that makes for great fun, and does not limit his erudition or ability to transmit hard-earned information. But he also opted for a fragmented, back and forth manner of laying out the story, which confused this reader.

The author's gumshoe prose might have been better matched with a simple linear narrative or clearer delineation at the necessary points of digression.

At somewhere along this mushy timeline, Gallo gets it into his fevered head to take on the Colombo family, even though they have more men, bigger guns, and a legitimate claim to the "businesses" at stake.

And so Joey and his "Barbershop Quintet" of thugs hole-up with a lot of firearms and spaghetti at the President Street headquarters in Brooklyn to await a big shootout with the Colombo clan, or some clan made up of Colombos.

The stage is set, the police are on edge, trigger-fingers itching and....nothing happens.

They hang around eating. A few missions are aborted. The police run periodic and preemptive raids to keep them off-balance. Worse, the guys' wives start complaining about lack of money. The army which served as fodder for Jimmy Breslin's
"The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight," grows fat waiting.

Meanwhile, Joey goes to jail for a few wasted years, reads a lot, befriends black revolutionaries, and dreams up a strategy for heroine in the streets of Harlem based upon the novel stuff he's been learning in The Big House.

He gets out and rejoins the boys who are short on strategy, resources, and street smarts. One of them, or maybe not, shoots Joe Colombo who goes into a coma. An old-style "gangland" war breaks out and few of the Gallo crew are murdered in exchange for a few of the other team's. Nobody is asking who killed first.

Joey, ever the man about town and artistic wannabee, charms certain of the Manhattan literati and entertainment types, but mostly Jerry Orbach who had just played Kid Sally in the movie version of "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight." You might remember Orbach from "Law & Order."

Anyway, "The Godfather" was being shot (okay, not the best choice of words) on the streets of New York as a gangster chic took hold in the culture and elevated Crazy Joey's status with Cafe Society.

Aspiring writers will sigh at learning that he had a book deal with a prominent publisher and was garnering invitations to speak on big media panels with people like Gore Vidal.

But they kept PULLING HIM BACK IN! So that whatever Gallo thought he could be and was building toward....doesn't happen.

Instead his dreams are snuffed out in a hail of gunfire over a very late-night repast at Umberto's in Little Italy on the lower East Side.

And there is your story with the old-time moral that crime doesn't pay (unless you're really good at it).

The opening quotation is from Jack Kerouac: "The only people for me are the mad ones, the one who are made to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace things, but burn, burn, burn."

But the Beat poet waxed about something different than what "The Mad Ones" covers. This petty gangster's name, in the end, was not "Mad," but "Crazy" Joey Gallo.

And he earned it.

No comments: