I come to Jimmy Breslin late in life–very late in his life (he’s 77), pretty late in mine considering I come from a working class family and I grew up not far from Breslin’s stomping grounds.
Right now I’m reading his latest book, called The Good Rat. I’m enjoying it, but I’m running into a lot of the same mixed feelings Breslin has always inspired in me.
A bit of background:
I am from a similar background to Breslin, only a generation later. I, too, was raised among the ethnic working class. I, too (though Breslin probably would have a harder time admitting it), became non-working class through education and the opportunities/different associations that brought to me. And for both Breslin and I, our working class credentials are important and proudly held.
One big difference between us, though, is that I take my alienation from the working class as a given. Breslin seems to be at pains to pretend that at heart he’s just a stevadore with an Underwood typewriter.
And this bit of self-delusion is tied in with a whole load of other illusions–mostly visbale in the rose-colored shades he tends to look at the old neighborhood life with generally.
Not that ethnic neighborhoods didn’t have their upside . . . just that they weren’t quite as Breslin would have them.
For instance, the policemen there were absolutely not typically paragons, by any measure. And the two cops in Breslin’s story–two cops who became mob assassins–were really different only in degree from what is taken for granted among police. Essentially a large number urban police behave as if they were in a gang. This breaks through hen Breslin tells us that his virtuous cop hears locker room talk that fellow officers Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa are workiong with the mob, and doing hits for them. But no one seems to consider sharing this information with someone who might put a stop to this enormity.
It is more important to hold up the police version of omerta than to protect the public or the integrity of the police force. The hard truth about those cops are, they were (and are) racists; they were (and are) first and foremost concerned about themselves and the rackets they’ve got working; they were (and are) often the worst the working class has to offer, not the best.
I know because my family has rubbed shoulders with cops–from patrolmen to captains–all my life. And it’s surprising how many of them have suspiciously big houses . . . and suspiciously big beach houses.
But Breslin’s love of the mobster (in spite of his show at being contemptuous, Breslin loves the attention and acceptance he gets from lazy, deceitful murderers and swindlers) shows that he’s drawn to the worst, and doesn’t have the eye to depict the best as much as his adherents would tell you. His “good” characters all seem to have something of the whore with the heart of gold in them . . . something out of bad fiction.
Whether Breslin is fooling himself with his romantic, nostalgic pap about working class life or just his willing readers, I don’t know. But, personally, as depressing as life in parking-lot land can be sometimes, I don’t need lies and tall-tales and slight fictionaliztions about the old neighborhood to buoy my spirits.
And I don’t think it does the old neighborhoods and the old characters and the old way of life much good for it to be gilded in myth–they’re worth remembering accurately. They shouldn’t be turned into crutches for unfulfilled suburbians to lean on.