Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Book Terrible

The Brothers Bulger, by Howie Carr, Read by Michael Prichard, Tantor Media, Inc., 2006

When I was a kid and into murder and mayhem in my reading material, true crime stories interested me for a while. I got into the genre through the classic that probably starts most teenage aficionados, Helter Skelter. As gripping as I found the reading then, I can barely remember the stack of real-life tragedies in pocket paperback form as I trudged willfully on. This is probably less a testament to the horrific nature of what I was reading about than to the leaden style such books usually sport. While Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood may be the granddaddy of the genre, in terms of style, his accomplishment has never been touched.

Upon reading that seminal work in the field, I forgot momentarily why it was I no longer bothered with such works and grabbed the next true crime audiobook that came to hand. Unfortunately, that book turned out to be radio personality Howie Carr’s obsessive tome The Brothers Bulger, a true life account of two powerful brothers in Boston, one in the underworld, the other in politics. To say that Carr’s book falls so short of the mark set by Capote’s classic unfairly tarnishes the latter even by association.

Carr, who has a background in journalism and is currently a front page columnist for Boston’s conservative Herald, ought to be a better writer than he demonstrates himself to be in this book. Perhaps his obsessive closeness to the material blinded him to the faults of his writing. Most journalists write straight A then B then C style reporting in their newspaper accounts; it’s what’s taught in journalism school. Such a style, however, is weak and tedious over the long haul. And Carr has nothing but a relentless march forward, so eager is he to cram every single event regardless of its necessity into his book.

To be sure, he spends some time in setting the scene and introducing readers to his characters, but it’s too little too early then it’s dropped for a bludgeoning “In January…in February…in March…in April…” and on and on. Nor does any of his scene setting and character studying illuminate why either brother became who he was. After listening to the book, I realized that I’d forgotten most of the details within a week. I suspect by year’s end I’ll retain the names (and mix up which brother was which).

Purporting in its subtitle to tell how William “Billy” Bulger and James “Whitey” Bulger “Terrorized and Corrupted Boston for a Quarter Century,” Carr’s account makes good on its first promise, though its second remains far too lofty a conceit. There is corruption in every major metropolitan city. If one were to look at American metropolises, four stand out as the most tangled, most corrupt, most filled with politicos and business leaders with shady pasts. Chicago, due to Al Capone and its proximity to Canada (making Prohibition era based smuggling easy); New York because, quite frankly, Gotham is simply too big without the wheels being greased everywhere you turn; ditto Los Angeles, a city built on phoniness and fake smiles; and Boston.

In fact, Boston politics are pretty well known nationally for relying heavily on a patronage system, for the backroom deal, and for a cutthroat style of personal aggrandizement. It seems a singular feat to write a book so characterless taking place in a city made up of nothing but characters. That Carr’s subtitle and general tone seems to suggest Boston was some squeaky clean model of clean politics and clean money until Billy Bulger slinked up the Capitol steps is laughable from the get-go.

Carr starts his book with the 2003 Congressional testimony of Billy Bulger in regards to Whitey’s whereabouts, the gangster having lammed it. If Carr is unlikely to provide more than unprovable whispers and inferences about Bulger’s (no doubt) shady use of his political clout, he is at least on solid ground in his incredulity that Billy could so easily spout patent nonsense as to how much he knew of his brother’s criminality. To be sure, no politician wants to own up to gangsters in the family, even less so when they’re murdering racketeers, but Billy’s denials are not even remotely credible.

The rest of the book is an intertwined account of how each brother went his own way in life, Billy through the grind of college, the military, the local Boston ward politics scene, rising all the way up to be President of the Massachusetts State Senate, while his brother moved from one crime to the next, eventually winding up on the FBI’s Top Ten List.

Whitey’s own early life has the scant documentation a youth in criminal activity can have, relying heavily on others’ memories. When Carr is focused on Whitey, the book momentarily becomes fascinating — as would most lifelong gangsters’ biographies — filled with shady women, snitches, pimps and prostitutes, hitmen, junkies, psychopaths, cops, and psychopathic cops. Consider Whitey in prison partaking in government studies in LSD, then later shipped out to Alcatraz. Or his hit car that can expel a huge cloud of blue smoke with the press of a button as well as a door in the bottom that can be opened to dump out oil to send any tailing vehicle into a spin.

Only natural then that Billy’s passing the bar, starting a law firm, and all that “straight” life entails should seem so ho-hum. Carr manages to snip a few bits of nastiness into Billy’s early days, suggestive statements such as “what he called ‘odd jobs’” though there is never any evidence brought forth to suggest that these were anything but.

It might have been a far better book altogether if Carr could have simply jettisoned Billy’s story, bringing him in where it might be relevant but mostly leaving him in the background, and focused on Whitey. Gaining protection by acting as a snitch for the FBI, Whitey used the agency to take down rivals in the Mafia and any other racket in which he wished to invest himself. His lifelong relationship with corrupt agents, his history of one doublecross after another, his psychopathic manner, all of these are compelling and exciting, but Carr simply mucks it up by comparison. Politicians will always lose out to killers in the attention business.

Where Carr does stray from his two subjects and try to add a little local Boston flavor, his conservative bona fides prove distracting and irrelevant. Trying to set the scene early in the book, Carr delivers such blarney as this depiction of the Irish neighborhood the Bulger Brothers grew up in: “The Projects then weren’t what they since have become. The families were intact and almost everyone had employment of some sort. There were no drugs, no unwed mothers, and next to no welfare.”

In those last three, he is assuredly absolutely wrong on the first two categories. As long as there have been genitalia and marriage, there have been unwed mothers. As long as humans have said, “Wow, this trips me out,” people have been chemically tinkering with their brains (and is not alcohol a drug?). What Carr is instead not-so subtly implying here is that the third item in that list is more or less responsible for the first two, an implication resting on the impossible suggestion that once upon a time people weren’t so lowdown and dirty as they are now thanks to nanny state liberals, a constant conservative fantasy.

You can even hear echoes of this sentiment in statements like: “No one in the projects had a lot of money, but with living expenses so low, not much was needed.” No one ever went hungry in the glorious past apparently either. When we later hear Carr tell us about the youth gangs that roamed the neighborhoods, fighting for territory, one wonders where all this corruption came from in this unspoiled, well-fed paradise of the past.

Further on, Carr tells us how as “recently as the 1960s” a boy who impregnated his underage girlfriend was given two choices, “marry her or join the Marines.” Excuse me, but should one take the fighting leatherneck option as many young men probably did, doesn’t that then suggest that there were in fact “unwed mothers”? Or does Carr postulate some commando unit of young men in the 50s willing to bite a different bullet and raise other men’s children?

At his most egregious is his account of the busing failures of Boston after a judge ruled the city’s essentially segregated school system unjust. Carr is right to point out that as the busing only applied to the city district, support for the plan would have been considerably weaker if the wealthier suburban residents had had to participate. Yet his choice of language in his telling betrays a barely concealed racism.

Those working class white Bostonians who manage to move out to the suburbs are described as having the “wherewithal” to do so; those who don’t are “stranded,” apparently trapped into actual contact with black residents. And, of course, all the white innocents are shipped off to schools racked with drugs and violence — because that’s what all black schools are like apparently. The resulting busing is described repeatedly as “chaos,” though Carr is at least fair enough to point out that in most instances it originated with white city residents. At this point, however, Carr goes on to reintroduce the plague of “unwed mothers” to Boston, something we must remember that had never ever before taken place, despite all those Marine enlistment stories.

Now, while it is true that most busing programs were problematic and were ultimately canceled, Carr writes as though there were some insidious evil in the very idea, hiding behind the bizarre belief that it was some plot inflicted on the working class by the elites. It is remarkable how frequently conservatives cry out passionately for the “little man” who is besieged by these same elites when the issue in question involves race or gay rights, though when fat cats are gilded a thousand times over at the expense of these same “little man” constituents, any mention of the screwing of the poor is relegated to obscurity, dismissed as “class warfare.”

The problem is that none of this is at all necessary. You can provide the information regarding this (Billy was an outspoken opponent of busing, more from political maneuvering perhaps than any real sense of racism), and you can even point out hypocrisy in the players, but Carr can’t keep his prejudices from shoving into the story and marring the account. Likewise, one shouldn’t find his version of how The Boston Globe, the competing liberal paper to the one for which he writes, The Herald, accounted itself during various breaking stories. There is quite a bit more than mere competition between these two dailies. When he claims that Bulger appoints his ways and means chair as a sop to the “yankees at The Globe” you know he’s just talking hot air.

But minus the hot air, there really isn’t much left to Carr’s book. Without his fulminations against Billy, without his conservative boilerplate anti-social engineering good old days spiel, what’s left is little more than a Whitey Bulger informational pamphlet. At times, this is interesting, but no credit is due to the author for this; he never strangled a woman with a rope and a garbage disposal. Anything creative in this book is the horrific work of an evil genius; Carr is hardly that.

And at times, it’s hard to know how to feel about a book written by an author who is so clearly a jerk himself. Because he’s such an ass, you might make the mistake at times to feel a smidgen of sympathy for his targets. No need. Corrupt politicians and murderers have little need of our sympathy; the same, then, can be said for talk radio gasbags.

Michael Prichard reads clearly with his highly authoritative slightly nasal tenor. He reads as if a well-informed professor who has practiced this narrative lecture a hundred times but never does it grow old for him.

No comments: