Wednesday, May 28, 2014



by Fred Blosser

As I discussed a couple of years ago in an earlier contribution to Ed’s blog, I find it interesting that when fans praise Gold Medal Books, they’re almost always referring to the GM catalog from the 1950s and 1960s, unless the subject is John D. MacDonald, Donald Hamilton, or the few others whose careers with GM spanned two, three, or more decades.  In my experience, the 1970s are rarely mentioned.  As a result, some fine novels from Gold Medal’s twilight decade have been overlooked and underappreciated, but worth trolling for.

For example, Richard Posner’s THE MAFIA MAN, published in 1973, that fondly remembered year of the Watergate hearings and the OPEC oil embargo. 

This was one of the ‘70s Mafia novels that Gold Medal cover-blurbed: “From the publishers of THE GODFATHER,” when that tag carried some marketing weight in the wake of Puzo’s best-selling novel and Coppola’s blockbuster movie.  

With greater accuracy, if lesser commercial appeal, the blurbs could have likened Posner’s grim little gangland story to the gritty Syndicate novels by Peter Rabe and Ovid Demaris that had appeared as Gold Medal originals two decades earlier.

Posner’s plot and characters reflect the free-floating malaise and anxiety of the early ‘70s, represented here in terms of seismic upheavals within the New York Mafia.  In the summer of 1972, the grisly murder of Dominick Passuia, an underling of the LaDuca gang, is followed by the drive-by killing of Don Vitone Francavilla, the capo of a rival family, on the Long Island Expressway.  Someone is trying to instigate a new gang war -- but who?  

The other Families fear that the Mafia’s black and Puerto Rican foot soldiers are trying to pit the Bosses against each other, so that they can seize power as wholesale slaughter begins and the Mob decimates itself.  The capos are going on the tenuous evidence that the killers in both murders were African-American.  But Don Vitone’s son Eddie, on the equally slender evidence of an old feud, thinks that the Passuias’ allies, the LaDucas, ordered the hit out of a mistaken belief that the Francavillas were behind Dominick’s murder.  

Neither side knows for sure.  Somewhere in the chain of command between the street soldiers and the Bosses, the lines of communication have been cut.

As tempers fray, Eddie recruits an outsider, David Holzman, an ambitious young reporter whose father had been Don Vitone’s sharp-eyed accountant in the old days.  David’s job: to poke around the internal machinery of the organization, ask questions, stir things up, and hope that clues will begin to emerge.  “Maybe someone will talk to him, who wouldn’t talk to Eddie,” Francavilla’s bodyguard Vinnie tells another Mafioso, Don Marco.

Posner knows how to tell a compelling story about the underworld in unpretentious, straight-ahead prose, like Mario Puzo but minus Puzo’s romanticized trappings.  The action takes place in rundown neighborhood stores, shabby offices, and cheap apartments.  This is the dirty, garbage-strewn, Lindsay-era New York City immortalized in THE FRENCH CONNECTION and SERPICO.  Even in Eddie’s upscale suburban estate, the furnishings are “vulgar.”  There’s no regal Don Corleone in Posner’s cast of mobsters, no tragically conflicted Michael, no larger-than-life Sonny.  

Holzman’s first impression of the new Don Eduardo: “Francavilla looked harried, like an executive whose business was failing.”  He’s a forerunner of other gangsters from later books, movies, and TV who find their upper-echelon Mob duties more grinding than glamorous, like James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano and Robert de Niro’s Jimmy the Gent Conway -- minus Tony’s flashes of humanity and Conway’s innate cunning.  

The old Dons fret over what will happen to their gangs when they retire or die.  Either their Americanized children will lack interest in taking over the business (“My sons are in medical school,” one capo says) or they’ll lack the needed drive and street smarts to maintain control.  Before his demise, Don Vitone considers the prospect with dismay: “To watch your son crap on everything you built, a weak-livered, simpering coward, like all the American-born sons.”

This theme of inter-generational discord pervades Posner’s story and poisons almost every one of the main characters.  Holzman looks back in resentment on “old world attitudes that stifled him in a boyhood of steaming chicken soup and bigotries.  Not love.”  Don Vitone’s angry disappointment in his son (“he was ashamed that this was all he could give to the organization”) is amplified in Eddie’s disdain for his own long-haired, seemingly passive son Ted: “He’s a piece of dog shit.”

A first reading of THE MAFIA MAN drowns you in Posner’s bleak, bloody story, with plentiful violence and sex.  After a second reading, you’re impressed with the subtext of generational divide in the Vietnam era of the story, and its legacy of disappointed parents and alienated, embittered offspring.  Read it a third time and notice the passage in which David Holzman, still in his twenties (like Posner himself at the time) speculates on the next American generation after his, foreseeing that the worst is yet to come for society:  

“The new breed, beautifully adapted to this world, an overcrowded jungle where human life was expendable.  Kids born and raised with a television screen for a mother.  Kids weaned on the media, instant war, computerized schooling.  . . . They saw death each night in color, real death, then make-believe death. . . .Nothing could possibly hold their interest, bombarded with frenzied entertainment from birth. . . . [T]he next natural step was murder, looting, mayhem.  It was a way to feel alive.”

Posner wrote two other Gold Medal novels about the Mafia: THE SEVEN UPS, a movie novelization (1973), and THE TRIGGER MAN (1974).  With Ed’s permission, more about them in future blogs.

1 comment:

RJR said...

I also enjoyed the novels of Jeff Jacks and Don Smith, although they were private eye novels.