Breslin's Back, Baby! Guns, Gore and Gangsters!

books rathe eppolitoh Breslin's Back, Baby! Guns, Gore and Gangsters!THE GOOD RAT
By Jimmy Breslin
Ecco, 270 Pages, $24.95

It starts with a kiss. In the opening lines of Jimmy Breslin’s The Good Rat, the consummate mob reporter is practicing his smooching in the mirror: “If you kiss,” he says, “it is a real sign that you’re in the outfit.” And if you’re kissing the cheeks he’s kissed, you’d better get it right.

The bulk of this book—Mr. Breslin’s 17th—focuses on the 2006 case of The United States v. Stephen Caracappa and Louis Eppolito, two NYPD detectives accused of moonlighting for the Lucchese crime family. It’s “the first great mob trial of the century,” and the lead character is Bensonhurst’s Burton Kaplan, a lifelong crook and deputy (albeit unmade—he’s Jewish, after all) to Anthony “Gaspipe” Casso, a Lucchese underboss. Mr. Kaplan, 72 and with “a morgue full of answers,” has turned informant, hoping to shave a few years from the 18 he has left to serve on a drug conviction. Despite a lifetime of shunning and shooting stool pigeons, Mr. Kaplan knows it’s now or never for him, and he’s always been one step ahead of the average wiseguy anyway; “he was in crime as a business, not an underworld dodge played on street corners and alleys,” writes Mr. Breslin. “Gangsters can’t do what he did, because it requires effort and thought.”

Large swaths of court transcripts are reprinted here in Q&A format: Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Henoch shoots questions at Mr. Kaplan, whose answers are both plain and fantastical. “Rather than tell the tale myself,” the author explains, “I let Burton Kaplan do the honor, since often he tells it better than even the greatest writer could.” Mr. Kaplan deadpans through a life of crime, putting the screws to his former associates as he rattles off their felonies like he’s reading a grocery list.

With decades of secrets buried like bodies in a parking lot, it’s a thrill to read Mr. Kaplan’s testimony, and the author’s fascination with La Cosa Nostra is certainly contagious. At times, the minutiae of courtroom questioning can be trying, but Mr. Breslin doesn’t let it get too far before interrupting with backstory on peripheral characters, history lessons about the Mafia families and tales of mob decadence. Whether it’s Bonanno boss Tony Café shaking hands with Police Commissioner Ray Kelly at Bamonte’s in Williamsburg (“[It] appears to be an out-of-the-way place, but it is on Broadway in the world of New York people who know what they are eating”) or a racehorse drinking from a bucket of ice water at Pep McGuire’s (“the greatest bar in the history of the city”), there’s a sharkskin-suit charm to Mr. Breslin’s underworld.

“I stand on Queens Boulevard in front of what was once Pep McGuire’s, and I recall nights and crimes,” the author laments, “and I am certain that I hold memories possessed by virtually no one else alive.”

As the transcripts and tales intertwine, a picture of stunning corruption emerges. Messrs. Caracappa and Eppolito weren’t just crooked cops; they were mediocre mobsters who could scarcely shoot straight. Mr. Breslin shows no sympathy for the bad boys in blue, describing Mr. Eppolito as having “the shoulders of a goat” and “the sorrowful eyes of a cow.” Slumped in their chairs, they get no compassion from the reader, either. In this world, if you’re going to be bad, you’ve got to do it with panache. Indeed, both are guilty of what the author calls “the most serious of all felonies, being a bore.”

Luckily for the reader, Mr. Breslin is incapable of committing such a crime. Whether Mr. Kaplan is spelling out how a treasury bill scam went down or the author himself is accompanying John Gotti to his Bergin Hunt and Fish Club on 101st Avenue, there’s no shortage of wonder on hand.

Completely sure of what he’s doing, the author knows how to hook a reader. “In my years in the newspaper business,” he says, “the Mafia comes down to one thing: circulation.” And, with that lesson in mind, The Good Rat is splashed with enough guns, gore and gangsters to move truckloads of copies.

Adam Rathe is associate editor of the arts and entertainment section of The Brooklyn Paper. He can be reached at books@observer.com.