Saturday, May 17, 2014

Book Reviews: The Friends of Eddie Coyle, American Desperado, Paris: A City Revealed

The Friends of Eddie Coyle
by George Higgins
Decades ago I saw bits and pieces of the movie based on this book on Detroit's ABC Channel 7 4:30 movie. I was only a kid and didn't remember much about it other than Robert Mitchum, who played the title role, was one suave dude. Over the intervening years I have read or listened to multiple people rave about how this book is a crime classic that kicked off a more realistic and less operatic or moralistic wave of modern crime stories. It was supposedly Tarantino before Tarantino. Tarantino did use the name of a story character for a movie title. So I finally decided to read this book. It's a good story though it's more Death of a Salesman transferred to the criminal world than a mob shoot em up. The cops and criminals are marking time and punching a clock instead of having any sort of dedication or zeal to catching felons or making criminal scores. They just do their job and go home. The reader may be positively impressed by the book's dialogue which dominates the text. The criminals and cops like to talk. But they aren't speaking theatrically of how "Our true enemy has yet to reveal himself" or " What I never knew until this day was that it was Barzini all along". No. Higgins is not that kind of writer. His characters are meat and potatoes guys and gals. They whine about how they can't get any sleep because they've been on the road too long, complain of their boyfriend's crude public comments on their body/sexual skills or pitch a fit about not having the proper sandwich condiments. So yes I think this book and the movie it inspired probably influenced many later writers. The story read like a play. Like many books that are mostly dialogue it can initially be a little difficult to follow what's happening as the people talking to each other already know the unspoken assumptions concerning the subject matter under discussion.
This book deglamorises organized crime. Although the Mafia is in the background and spoken of obliquely, the book examines folks who are not Mafia members, though they may work with or be related to them. This is set in Boston. So most of the criminals and cops are of Irish background.
Eddie Coyle is an aging gangster. He's a criminal jack of all trades. You looking for some sex movies? Eddie can help. Are you in need of fireworks or bootleg liquor? Eddie's the one to see. Eddie knows the rules but is a fading player. Small time. No one on either side of the law fears or respects him. Eddie's current primary business is gun dealing. Eddie was recently busted in New Hampshire for transporting bootleg whiskey across state lines. Eddie kept his mouth shut about whose whiskey this was but his sentencing is approaching. Eddie thinks he's a bit too old to go back to prison. He could be looking to make a deal. However Eddie must be careful about his demeanor because his "friends" are alternately worried that Eddie is too scared about going back to prison or that Eddie is not concerned at all about going back to prison. Either conclusion could be harmful to Eddie's future life plans. Eddie thinks about sharing information on some small crimes here or there to uncaring federal agent Foley, who may or may not have other informers. Eddie also supplies guns to a Mafia backed group of bank robbers. Eddie gets the gats from youthful gun runner Jackie Browne. Watching over all of this is bartender and part time hitman Dillon, who is the local liaison to "the boys" (mob). 

I liked the book but I don't know that I would run around raving about how good it was. I thought it was okay. Strangely enough it reminded me of the penultimate scene in Cooley High in that mistaken assumptions can be deadly. No one can trust anyone in this book. I imagine that's what the real underworld is all about. This was a very quick read. You can finish it in a week or less quite easily. This book oozes fatalism. George Higgins also wrote Cogan's Trade which was turned into the film Killing Them Softly.

American Desperado
By Jon Roberts and Evan Wright
Speaking of the real underworld I remember watching the 2006 documentary "Cocaine Cowboys". This film centered on the Miami drug trade and its associated violence. Most of the violent players were Cubans and Colombians. But there were other people involved. One such person was a smuggler/manager for the Medellin Cartel named Jon Roberts. This older man had a very pronounced NU YAWK accent. He looked scrawny. He was going to seed physically. I figured he was a small time hustler/player. WRONG on all accounts! Jon Roberts was actually John Riccobono, the Italian-American son and nephew of some rather scary mobsters in the Gambino Crime Family. Although he was not formally inducted into the Family that proved to be no impediment to his criminal successes. In New York, Roberts spearheaded the Mafia's control of nightclubs, restaurants and concert booking. He also started dealing cocaine and reading between the lines may have done a little pandering. He certainly gained a reputation as a violent up-and-comer. One of his favorite schemes was to pretend to sell drugs to hippies or college students and rob them instead. This was in equal parts pure predation (hippies rarely fought back or went to the police) and class resentment. When Roberts got caught up in a kidnapping/extortion plot that went bad he took the judge's choice to enter the Army. He served in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne. After a short period in regular service Roberts was supposedly recruited for special programs. He does not name them but he's very obviously referring to the CIA's Operation Phoenix. I won't describe everything in detail that Roberts said he did here but utter depravity including murder, torture and mutilation pretty much covers it. The author was unable to verify many of these claims. You'll have to decide for yourself if Roberts was telling the truth.

In this book Roberts is frank about his involvement in some civilian murders, presumably those he had already confessed to and a bit less forthcoming about some others. A typical phrase describing those in the second category goes something like "I won't say what I did but so-and-so was found in the street a month later". Roberts is extremely and disturbingly frank about the evil he's done. Perhaps this is associated with being a lapsed Catholic? He's clear that when he dies he thinks he's going to hell. But Roberts also believes that no matter what anyone says, evil is stronger than good. Evil gets things done in this world. One reason Roberts may have felt this way was that as a child he saw his father commit murder. Guilt is not something that Roberts seems to feel or even understand but he does have a little disdain for people who glamorize his lifestyle (filmmakers and rappers). There are only one or two incidents he details where he ever claims to feel anything close to remorse.
After his discharge from the Army Roberts returns to New York and takes up where he left off. But when a police officer is killed (I wonder who did that?) Roberts decides that Miami might be a better location to operate. Miami is also an "open" city in that no one Mafia family can claim hegemony. Anyone can operate down there. And anyone does. Jon moves there, hooks up with a Cuban drug dealing maniac as well as a few killers who would later become CIA assets, and becomes a criminal extraordinaire. He builds his own small drug network and continues to run nightclubs and commit armed robberies. Nothing if not ambitious Roberts rises in the loose Florida criminal network to become Max Mermelstein's right hand man. Mermelstein was an in-law of ranking Medellin Cartel members. Mermelstein was responsible for overseeing smooth importation and delivery of cocaine to distributors and getting the proper monies in return. But per Roberts, Mermelstein was a coward, a weak man who never killed anyone. Mermelstein couldn't even stand up to local Cuban thugs, let alone his mad dog Colombian employers/relatives. Roberts took over 95% of Mermelstein's responsibilities, making him a boss in name only. With a few notable exceptions Mermelstein was ok with this. He got to throw parties and act like he was important. Roberts had a very low opinion of his "boss" and was happy to "manage upwards",  leaving Mermelstein out of the loop on many decisions. Roberts was the Cartel's point man for importations, distribution, and payment. Roberts could also be held personally responsible if anything went wrong. He describes one such misunderstanding.
Many CIA assets and informers weave in and out of this story. I am suspicious as to exactly when Roberts became a CIA asset. I think it happened MUCH earlier than he admits to. He details his involvement in the CIA contra arms for drugs scandals. This book pulls the curtains back on the cesspool of corruption that was (is?) Florida politics, the rivalries between and among various law enforcement and criminal organizations and the fact that General Noriega and some of Roberts' criminal associates were pedophiles. Roberts could not have worked as long as he did without the passive and active assistance of many law enforcement officials at every level. Funny, vicious and occasionally extremely disturbing this fascinating tale reads like a combination of Boogie Nights and Wiseguy. Roberts has a lot of interesting stories about some famous people. Some he identifies by name, others he does not. Some people mentioned include Jimi Hendrix, Mercury Morris, Frank Stella, Bruce Lee, the actress Toni Moon (an ex-wife), OJ Simpson, Meyer Lansky and James Caan. If you're curious about proper pistol whipping techniques, need to know what to say or not to say at a Mafia sitdown or for strictly professional reasons must practice using the minimum energy necessary to beat someone with a baseball bat, this is the book for you. As Roberts flatly tells the reader " Most of the time I've been on this earth I've had no regard for human life. That's been the key to my success".

Paris: A City Revealed
by Mike Gerrard and Donna Dailey

This is another coffee table book that I picked up from a bookstore bargain section quite some time ago and only just recently got around to reading. So it goes. Paris is a city I've always wanted to visit. However some people that I know who have been there say I might not enjoy it all that much. I don't care for cigarette smoke in the air and dog waste on my shoe in this country so why travel thousands of miles to have the same experience somewhere else. Still I love Gothic, Baroque, Art Deco and Romanesque architecture so I imagine at some point before I shuffle off this vale of tears I will take a trip over there. This book is written by a husband and wife travel writing duo who got engaged in Paris and evidently know the city quite well, judging by the book's text. I think that people need beauty in the world, whether they find that beauty in other human beings, creative pursuits, art, buildings, nature or other things. Life is too short to look at ugliness. Why hurt your eyes? This book is stuffed full of beauty. It virtually glows with it. Just flipping thru this book will cause you to have renewed appreciation for this natural glories of nature and vibrate in harmony with the universe as you are struck with awe at the things that humans can build once they put their mind to it. Ok there might be a little hyperbole in that last sentence. Nevertheless this book seizes your attention with its photography.

The book is arranged in ten different sections,(St. Germain and the Left Bank, Montmartre, Central Paris, etc) each of which discusses a different area or aspect of Paris, complete with lavish high quality photography and short concise descriptions which will answer some questions and hopefully pique your interest even more. Paris probably originated from a small fishing village settled around 250 BC. Much of the architecture that impresses me was built in the Middle Ages or Renaissance. As I've said before you can say what you like about the peoples of those times long past, what with their superstitions, lack of plumbing or personal hygiene and by our standards, barbarity, but they knew how to build things. And they built to last. If you've been to Paris then of course some of these photos and stories will be quite familiar. If you've never been then this is the next best thing. It's like taking a trip without having to deal with all the hassles. Amazon is charging $63 for a new edition but you'd be a sucker to pay more than $12.98.

blog comments powered by Disqus