“The Good Rat”? Try “The Totally Freakin’ Awesome Rat”

I enjoy the heck out of Ron Rosenbaum’s essays and columns, but my track record with his book, movie, music recommendations isn’t great. Sure, he turned me — and a generation of readers — on to Charles Portis, and he also lightened my heart with Rosanne Cash.

But then there’s the Rosenbaum who contends that Domino “captures, purely with its look, the way we look” and “will be a cultural referent longer than many movies that make more money.” In fact, Domino is a terrible movie, the acid-green-iness isn’t very innovative, and it still doesn’t answer the question of whether Keira Knightley is hot.

And don’t get me started with the number of months my wife & I were sucked into the hypersaturated void of CSI:Miami on Ron’s recommendation. Sure, it was stupidly entertaining, especially with the Caruso-isms. But, dude . . . Zoroastrian undertones?

What I’m saying is, some of Ron’s suggestions are good, some are bad. And I’m telling you that he hit a home run with his recent praise for Jimmy Breslin’s new book, The Good Rat.

I downloaded the book shortly after reading Ron’s article, and I could barely put it down. I’ve gone back to reread chapters this weekend. It’s a fantastic non-fiction book about a career mobster who testifies against a pair of crooked (now retired) cops. Much of the book consists of the man’s testimony, balanced by Breslin’s wonderful interjections, his anecdotes about criminal New York’s past and dissolving present, character sketches, and his own past as a newspaperman, chronicling the city’s underworld.

The book is a sort of elegy for those early days, exploring the contradictions of the glamor, mundanity and evil of the mafia. The mobsters commit evil acts — the center of the book involves a heartbreaking story of murder-by-mistaken-identity — but they lead common lives, and Breslin is adept at drawing out these tensions. These men aspire to some sort of greatness, but they can never amount to anything more than elderly men trying to stay ahead of the feds. This may seem passe, post-Sopranos, but Breslin makes it a joy to explore this world.

Go get The Good Rat. It’s the best book I’ve read this year. (I count The Heart of Darkness as a novella, not a book.)

[As an aside, I should point out that the biggest tragedy in the death-of-the-newspaper phenomenon may be the loss of great city & political columnists like Breslin, Mike Royko and Murray Kempton (another Rosenbaum recommendation). I only read a few papers nowadays, but I can’t think of any newspaper writers working now who could reach their heights.]

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