A Quietly Remarkable Memoir Walks a Beat From H.U. to NYPD

Blue

Blood , by Edward Conlon.

Riverhead, 562 pages, $26.95.

The

notable first-person genres of the past 10 years or so-spoiled-child memoir,

abuse memoir, depression memoir (did I mention spoiled-child memoir?)-attest to

a world in which high literacy and genuine hardship no longer go together quite

as commonly as they once did. War once took care of this, at least for men: It

yoked brutal experience to literate young people, prematurely and routinely. My

father, who went to Princeton, barely mentions his World War II experiences

along the Burma Road. If, however, like Oliver Stone or John Kerry, you left

Yale to fight in Indochina, you might dine out on the decision for the rest of

your life. As world wars gave way to regional police actions, and as an ethos

of shared sacrifice gave way to student deferrals, everything changed. In a

world of unequal sacrifice-a world that creams talent efficiently, then

shelters it from misery-the gulf between the literary and the nonliterary world

deepens.

Here

comes a stunning exception to prove the rule. Starting in the late 90′s, under

the pseudonym Marcus Laffey, The New Yorker ran a series of columns

called “Cop Diary.” Written in the first person, they told the story of a young

officer’s fairly run-of-the-mill career in the NYPD, in prose that was anything

but run-of-the mill. At its best, “Cop Diary” recalled the old New Yorker -not

the famously twee New Yorker of the Shawn era, glorious as that could

be, but an older old New Yorker , a kind of laconic blarney with

roots deep in Joseph Mitchell. This was rare indeed: the intersection of high

literacy with lowlife culture at the level of firsthand experience, a

combination that the now-elaborate talent-sorting, talent-creaming apparatus

often seems devoted to making extinct. Who was Marcus Laffey, and just what

sort of throwback-or impostor-was he?

Laffey

has since been outed as one Edward Conlon, a now 40-ish Harvard graduate who

made his way, over the course of roughly a decade, from New York City beat cop

to gold-shield detective. Mr. Conlon has come clean with the entire story

behind Laffey and his life on “the Job,” as cops refer to it with a certain

rueful pride. Blue Blood , his quietly remarkable memoir, is less a

shoot-’em-up or po-faced Law and Order procedural-in fact, it’s not

remotely either of those-than an unusually sensitive reflection on criminality,

police culture and the role of social class in America. The reason for the

sensitivity, and for the unbridled enthusiasm with which the memoir is being greeted,

is as surprising as it is refreshing: Mr. Conlon completely bollixed the

post-Vietnam, meritocratic storyline.

The

only blue in Mr. Conlon’s blood isn’t Brahmin-it’s pure Irish cop. His

great-grandfather, Sergeant Pat Brown, used to “carry the bag on Atlantic

Avenue” (he transported the mob’s ill-gottens for them), and his Uncle Eddie

was an officer on the force. It was Mr. Conlon’s father who, as a career F.B.I.

agent, vaulted the family’s fortunes forward. The father appeared to the son as

“the image of a G-man: tall and prematurely silver-haired, with a trench coat

and fedora, a profile in sternness and probity that masked a playful curiosity

and a devious sense of humor.” After growing up a normal enough miscreant in

working-class Westchester, Mr. Conlon continued the family’s upward mobility by

attending Harvard. But after Harvard and the usual false starts, he joined the

NYPD. To have lurched from teenage Yonkers rogue to Yard-trodding scholar and,

finally, to Bronx flatfoot was, as Mr. Conlon himself puts it, “closer to a

crime against nature than a bad career choice.” Better to have told his parents

he was “going back to Ballinrobe, to tend a few sheep and dig potatoes with a

stick.”

To

be equal parts street and Ivy gives you universal credibility; and to straddle

class lines in a world in which they only get more rigid automatically makes

you a darling. But it also makes for a life of proliferating embarrassments.

When a sergeant at the Police Academy asked Mr. Conlon if he had really attended

Harvard, he replied with a pettifoggery worthy of his white-shoe classmates:

“Not lately, Sarge” is the literal truth camouflaged as sarcasm. So committed

was he to obscuring his credentials that when NYPD forms asked for his alma

mater, he hoped his scrawl would be misread as “Howard.”

Mr.

Conlon’s embarrassment makes for a curiously unstable literary voice, one that

drifts back and forth from polished but vivid old school ( McSorley’s

Wonderful Saloon ) to a quiet but persistently defensive machismo. He seems

at pains to tell us about each of his life’s many fistfights-almost the only

thing he tells us about his Harvard years was that, upon arriving, he

brawled-but then he shuffles his feet, aw shucks , and claims to have

lost most of them. In the next breath he explains, “The word ‘investigate’

comes from the Latin vestigium …. ” There’s also a little too much

towel-snapping, Hollywood-ready multi-ethnic camaraderie, as when the Italian

and Irish cops, making light of the Compstat system of gathering crime

statistics, book criminals depending on their ethnicity by using either

“Mickstat” or “Wopstat.”

As

if to bring competing energies under control, Blue Blood ‘s abiding tone

is almost compulsively apothegmatic. A long digression on the murder of one of

his father’s informants wraps up with “We all have our vocations, and we all

have our mysteries.” A few pages later, a fascinating discussion of how the

race of a perp and the race of a cop will define their interaction cuts off

with “In the end, the color of your skin doesn’t matter but the thickness of it

does.” More disappointing is the book’s failure to reflect deeply on the nature

of drug busts. By far Mr. Conlon’s most satisfying experience as a police

officer was working on the Street Narcotics Enforcement Unit, and the pace and

vivid grittiness of these portions of the book show it. He played his role in

enforcing the draconian Rockefeller drug laws, and yet this disappointing feint

is as far as he gets when the time comes to assess the policy’s wider significance:

“The Urban League had published a report on cities that stated that one out of

every three black men in their twenties was in prison, on parole, or on

probation. It is a devastating number, and a national disgrace, and I haven’t

got the least idea what to do about it, except for my job.”

But

these are quibbles. Whether at the knees of his cop elders or around the

seminar table, Mr. Conlon learned how to talk to old ghosts, and then to write

about it gorgeously. By far the finest sections of the book-and these are truly

magnificent-recount old half-forgotten histories, from Pat Brown’s to Serpico’s

and Popeye Egan’s. (Egan is best remembered as the model for Popeye Doyle in The

French Connection . After the movie he floated along, a legend and a

raconteur who, unlike his partner Sonny Grosso, couldn’t parlay his newfound

fame into a showbiz afterlife. He eventually became a departmental scapegoat

and died broke and alone.) All this adds up to a gripping social history of New

York policing. But almost more importantly, Blue Blood demonstrates how

sharpening to the senses it is when language and reality chasten one another.

“The kid on the bench is a kid on a bench,” Mr. Conlon tells us, “and it takes

time for his context to prove him to be anything more. You watch who he watches,

who approaches him. And as you do, figures emerge from the flow of street life

as coordinates on a grid, as pins on a map.” Ed Conlon is one gifted writer. I

bet he’s an even better cop.

Stephen

Metcalf reviews books regularly for The

Observer .