Mafia Summer: The Ballad of Sidney Butcher
Chances are that if you've turned on a television set during prime
time in the last three decades you have encountered the work of E.
Duke Vincent. Vincent has been involved in the creation and/or
production of television series ranging from "Dynasty" and "Vegas"
to "Melrose Place" and "Charmed," among others. MAFIA SUMMER is his
first attempt at a novel, but he brings to it the same assured and
steady hand that has made so many television shows with which he
has been involved compulsory and compulsive viewing.
While ostensibly a work of historical fiction, there is so much
that rings true to life here that it has more of a biographical
feel to it than a work of the imagination. Indeed, Vincent notes in
his acknowledgments that this is a story that he has been turning
over in his mind for some 40 years. If Vincent was not a
participant to at least some of the events in MAFIA SUMMER, he was
no doubt a close observer; the narrative's main strength is that it
puts the reader in that position as well.
The events in MAFIA SUMMER take place over the course of a week at
the end of August 1950. New York City is caught in a heat wave,
which serves as a metaphorical backdrop for the Five Families of
the New York City underworld, the members of which are the subject
of Federal scrutiny that came to be known as the Kefauver hearings.
18-year-old Vinny Vesta, the son of Mangano family
caporegime Dino Vesta, himself has a street gang that is on
the bottom tier of the gangland hierarchy. The Vesta family
maintains a low profile, living in a modest Hell's Kitchen
apartment during the week as a front while spending their weekends
at a luxurious farm outside the city. Vinny's gang, known as the
Icemen, is an interesting set of individuals, each with their own
particular and peculiar talents that are applied to legitimate
purposes and otherwise. Their specialty involves heists to order,
if you will, and they are quite good at spotting and evaluating
situations that present merchandise ripe for the taking, either on
their own or on a referral basis.
Two occurrences, however, are to provide a catalyst that will
change Vinny's life forever. The first is his meeting with, and
befriending of, Sidney Butcher, a sickly but booksmart Jewish boy
whose family has just moved into an apartment across the hall from
Vinny. Vinny introduces Sidney to life on the streets, providing
Sidney with an excitement and friendship that previously had been
denied to him. But the introductions aren't all one-way. Too ill to
attend school regularly, Sidney has been teaching himself at the
New York City library. While Vinny is at first dragged reluctantly
into the stacks, he quickly becomes enchanted with the works of the
Renaissance painters, as well as the world of John Steinbeck and F.
Scott Fitzgerald. Vinny slowly comes to realize that there is a
better place, perhaps a better way, beyond the crime-ridden streets
that have become the locus of his life.
Meanwhile, a second event is brewing that will have an effect on
Vinny and will resonate far beyond its conclusion. Gee-gee Petrone,
an ambitious capo in the Luciano crime family, hires Vinny
to steal 40 cases of sable pelts from a storage depot. The police
though are seemingly tipped off to the job in advance, and almost
catch the Icemen in the act. When Petrone insists that the order
nonetheless be filled, Vinny and his father come to realize that
Petrone is setting them up in an ambitious power-grabbing scheme
that will advance Petrone and his mentor, a wily underboss named
Vito Genovese. When a rival gang begins gunning not only for Vinny
but also for Sidney, the level of danger reaches a new high for
both Vinny and his father, who is interjecting himself into the
action. Vincent builds his story slowly but deliberately to an
apocalyptic ending that will leave everyone involved changed
Vincent possesses that rare ability to make his characters come
alive; indeed, each of the individuals involved in MAFIA SUMMER is
memorable in his own way. And while much of the action is grim,
Vincent nicely balances the action with some humor and even a few
touching moments of friendship. Combining the best elements of "The
Sopranos" and CATCHER IN THE RYE, MAFIA SUMMER may well be the
surprise book of this summer.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 7, 2011