Review

The Good Rat: A True Story

by Jimmy Breslin

Long
before “The Sopranos,” Casino and
Goodfellas, Jimmy Breslin wrote a book in 1970 called THE
GANG THAT COULDN’T SHOOT STRAIGHT that was also made into a
movie. It was one of the first fictional looks inside the
feared Cosa Nostra, written a year after Mario Puzo penned THE
GODFATHER. There might never have been a fictional Tony Soprano if
not for Breslin and Puzo.

Breslin knew his subject. He spent many a long night back in the
day drinking in mob joints with characters such as Jimmy Burke, who
was portrayed in Goodfellas by Robert De Niro. Breslin
points out here that a young De Niro consulted with him to find out
how to play wiseguys before filming The Gang. It was one
of Bobby D’s first screen roles before Godfather: Part
II.

So who better to cover what was billed as the first great mob trial
of the 21st century? Two NYPD detectives were accused of being
hitmen for the Lucchese crime family, fulfilling contracts on eight
victims. Breslin approaches the trial with a sense of gloom.
“And the idea of cops who use their badges to murder
depresses me,” he writes, “It is dreary and charmless
and lacks finesse. It promises no opportunity to marvel, much less
laugh.”

And then Burton Kaplan, the good rat in this tale, takes the stand
to inform on the cops. Breslin observes, “He testifies in
simple declarative sentences, subject, verb and object, one
following the other to start a rhythm that is compelling to the
jury’s ear…Kaplan comes out of all the ages of crime,
out of Dostoyevsky, of the Moors Murders, of Murder Inc. A few
words spoken by Burt Kaplan on his Brooklyn porch sent animals
rushing out to kill.”

Breslin found his book, as Kaplan tells the court about his life in
crime. He uses Kaplan’s story to link us to the history of
the mob over the past half century, as witnessed firsthand by
reporter Breslin.

Kaplan is not a mob boss. He is not even a “made man.”
As a Jew, he can’t be a member of the Sicilian mob. Kaplan is
a legitimate businessman with a lot of illegitimate sidelines.
Whether dealing in drugs or stolen goods, Kaplan is an
“earner” for the mob. He also becomes right-hand man to
Anthony “Gaspipe” Casso, a Lucchese crime boss who uses
Kaplan as the go-between to the alleged “killer”
cops.

At 72 and facing 18 more years in prison on drug charges, Kaplan
quite reluctantly and with great sorrow breaks the code of silence
he has lived his life by in order to see his grandchild as a free
man. He becomes a rat.

THE GOOD RAT is a classic mob book. It is a fascinating and
compelling read made even better by one of America’s greatest
writers working his craft at the top of his game. Breslin does not
just write sentences --- he chisels them as if working in stone.
Most writers just get the words down, but Breslin works the words
until they are sharp and precise and paint clear pictures. This has
become a lost art in corporate journalism today and especially on
the Internet.

Consider Breslin’s description of one of the cops: “He
must weigh more than three hundred pounds. He has the shoulders of
a goat. Once he stopped bodybuilding, his front slid down like a
slab off a collapsing glacier.” Or this description of his
fellow defendant: “His narrow, sharp face reveals less than a
frosted window.”

Interspaced between the trial, Breslin gives us the entire modern
history of the mob. At the beginning, the “Black Hand”
operated in secret as J. Edgar Hoover denied its existence. By the
late ’60s the Mafia had become part of American folklore as
bestselling writers like Breslin and Puzo started making it a
cultural phenomenon.

Then the narrative shifts to the Outfit’s waning years at the
end of the 20th century as arrogant gangsters like John Gotti were
destroyed by informants like Sammy “The Bull” Gravano
and RICO statures started putting old men away not for five years,
as had been the case, but for 50 years of hard time. The code of
Omerta quickly crumbled.

Breslin writes with his usual passion and biting humor. As a young
newspaperman he got the mob beat because he came from Queens.
“I was reputed to be streetwise and tough,” he writes.
“Which was untrue. I didn’t fight. I chased stories,
not beatings. But I knew where to find people who were somewhat
less than our civic best, and so the editors clung to the
illusion.”

Did he ever fear that his writing about the mob would get him
buried in The Hole, the notorious “informal” burial
site in Ozone Park? He writes, “Was I nervous about the
mobsters? You want to be afraid of something, be afraid of being
broke.”

Written as only JB can. Like the legendary reporter he is, Breslin
tells the truth about the mob. “As it dissolves, you inspect
it for what it actually was, grammar-school dropouts who kill each
other and purport to live by codes from the hills of Sicily that
are actually either unintelligible or ignored.”

In THE GOOD RAT, Breslin shows us unexpected sides of the mob.
Jimmy Burke “left a mountain of bodies” buried over his
career. One night, Burke summons Breslin to an ominous midnight
meet. Breslin wonders if he is going to be killed. But he has other
problems on his mind; his first wife is dying of cancer. Burke
surprises him by offering him $30,000 in cash to get his wife the
best doctors. It isn’t a bribe, Burke points out, because
“I know Rose when you married her.” Breslin declines,
saying, “But I got to remember you forever.”

Times change. Traditional mob enterprises like gambling and loan
sharking have been taken over by the government and banks. The
corner ATM machine in poor neighborhoods replaces the shylock while
still charging outrageous interest on “loans.” Yet
there will always be a Mafia, Breslin points out. “Just like
Prohibition, mobsters will do things nobody else wants to
do,” he writes.

At one point in this book Breslin describes the late newspaperman
from Chicago, Mike Royko, as “a national treasure.”
Very true. But so is Jimmy Breslin. Another great writer, Pete
Hamill, once told me that “Jimmy is Jimmy.” Other
writers have copied his style for decades, but nobody has his
distinctive voice. THE GOOD RAT is one of his best books. Read and
enjoy it. A new work by Breslin is an event to celebrate and
cherish.

Reviewed by Tom Callahan on January 22, 2011

The Good Rat: A True Story
by Jimmy Breslin

  • Publication Date: February 1, 2009
  • Genres: Nonfiction, True Crime
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0060856696
  • ISBN-13: 9780060856694