Jul. 18, 2011

The Whitey Bulger book I’d like to read

So Whitey Bulger has been caught, and Boston’s greatest crime story will finally have its denouement. Not climax; we’re long past that. But we’re into the last few pages: a few courtroom scenes, a few loose ends to tie up, then we can close the book. (If you need a crash course on the case, start with these articles by George V. Higgins and Alan Dershowitz.)

But why wait for the ending? Already we seem to have decided how the story will be told: Whitey Bulger will go down as an arch gangster, and his signature achievement will be playing the FBI for fools. That was the story told memorably in Black Mass, the nonfiction account by reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill. The theme of informants-run-amok was revisited in “The Departed,” where Jack Nicholson played a gangster “inspired by” Whitey, though Nicholson’s performance was so ridiculous, the rest of the country must have wondered what the hell we Bostonians were so scared of. A second movie is already in the works, this time about Bulger’s murderous Winter Hill Gang, based on a book by its chief thug, John Martorano. We’ll have to wait and see of course, but I’m guessing it’ll be more hard-boiled mobster stuff. John Martorano isn’t exactly the man to write a sensitive, nuanced portrait of his old boss.

I don’t object to any of this. Reducing the story to the familiar shape of a gangster flick is fine, as far as it goes. I love gangster stories as much as anyone. I do have reservations about mythologizing a killer like Whitey, who was exceptionally sadistic even by the standards of his profession. But then, vicious mobsters have inspired great fiction before. Al Capone gave us “Scarface” and “The Untouchables.” Dutch Schultz begat E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate, one of the best “literary” crime novels I’ve ever read. New York’s Five Families provided the raw material for The Godfather. These are romanticized versions of the truth, of course, and Whitey will have to be romanticized too, for dramatic reasons. But no one is naive enough to believe that these fictions are intended as accurate portraits. So if writers want to retell Whitey’s story as if it was just another gangster movie — “Scarface” or “Goodfellas” with a Boston accent — I say, more power to ’em. Lord knows, I’ve written similar stuff.

But I hope someone will also step forward to write the real story of Whitey Bulger in the full context of his time and place. Which is to say, I hope someone will write the truth. The story is much more complex than Bulger’s manipulation of his FBI handlers. It sprawls over the whole city of Boston. The Bulger book I want to read might be “literary true crime,” like In Cold Blood or The Executioner’s Song, or it may be straight literary historical fiction like Doctorow’s Ragtime or Billy Bathgate. Best of all, perhaps it would be a fictionalized biography, like Colum McCann’s wonderful Dancer or Colm Toibin’s The Master, the sort of book that brings the real man to life. Whatever the style, the book would be big and baggy and discursive enough to tell the whole story.

To understand why the telling requires such a big canvas, ask yourself, as Chris Lydon recently suggested:

in how many places could it have been said with authority that the overlord of the drug cartel and the overlord of local politics were brothers and intimates?

Medellin, perhaps, but that’s in Colombia.

Marseilles, but that was France, upon a time.

Not included in that list, you will note, are Capone’s Chicago, Dutch Schultz’s New York, or any other of America’s gloriously crooked cities. There simply hasn’t been an American crime story quite like it.

It’s the Boston story. All the elements are there: the tribal resentment that always divided this city by race, class, ethnicity, neighborhood, you name it; the casual corruption of its institutions, from police to government to church; its cramped, provincial high-low culture. And in the end, the inexorable passing of all that, of Whitey’s bad old Boston — the city’s emergence as a wealthier, worldlier place than the one that produced him.

The Bulger story is also filled with complex characters, not least the Bulger brothers themselves. Bad men, to be sure, but not simple ones. As a reader, I want to see them revealed, Whitey especially. I want to see him standing before me with those ice-blue eyes and flat-brim fedora. I want to go inside the Old Harbor housing project in Southie in the 1940s and ’50s, where Whitey grew up. I want to see the world that made him, the journey he took. I want the real Whitey Bulger in all his wickedness and canniness and strutting.

Suspense fiction will not show me that man. It will require that Whitey be flattened. Not completely, not so much that he loses all his complexity and humanity. But enough that his motivations become consistent and easily understood by readers. That’s how suspense works. Its protagonists are desiring machines. They have to be. The audience will not feel tension unless it understands what the protagonist wants and what he must overcome to get it. That sort of perfect consistency is what makes genre characters, however skillfully drawn, not quite human.

In his essay on Charles Dickens, Orwell described the wooden quality of characters who never grow, change, or learn, who never surprise us:

Why is it that Tolstoy’s grasp seems to be so much larger than Dickens’s — why is it that he seems able to tell you so much more about yourself? It is not that he is more gifted, or even, in the last analysis, more intelligent. It is because he is writing about people who are growing. His characters are struggling to make their souls, whereas Dickens’s are already finished and perfect. In my own mind Dickens’s people are present far more often and far more vividly than Tolstoy’s, but always in a single unchangeable attitude, like pictures or pieces of furniture. You cannot hold an imaginary conversation with a Dickens character as you can with, say, Peter Bezoukhov [of War and Peace]. And this is not merely because of Tolstoy’s greater seriousness, for there are also comic characters that you can imagine yourself talking to… It is because Dickens’s characters have no mental life. They say perfectly the thing that they have to say, but they cannot be conceived as talking about anything else. They never learn, never speculate.

To flatten Whitey Bulger and his people this way — to reduce them to “pictures or pieces of furniture” who “have no mental life” — is to miss the truth of the story. It misses the very quality that made the Bulgers so dangerous: their slippery, two-faced, vicious, canny minds. You can turn Whitey Bulger into Scarface or Sonny Corleone, but it would be a lie.

Worse, from a storyteller’s perspective, it would be a missed opportunity.

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