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Bensonhurst by B. Lawrence Goldberg – A “Sort of” Book Review..

August 11, 2020

Bensonhurst by B. Lawence Goldberg

Bensonhurst is a west Brooklyn, New York City neighborhood, the western tip of which is within a mile or so of the Verrazzano Bridge. To its west along the water’s edge, Fort Hamilton, where I took my first of two draft physicals for the U.S. army in late autumn of 1968. So I have a sentimental attachment to the neighborhood., sort of and remember well that human meat grinder that offered free one way tickets to SE Asia – all expenses paid.

Moving east from Bensonhurst is Brooklyn’s Midwood neighborhood, and to the east of that, just a couple of miles away is East Midwood, another personal landmark. There, on Avenue K, just east of Nostrand Ave is the dry goods store by my maternal grandmother, Sarah Magaziner, who both ran the store and tended to the material and spiritual needs of the seven surviving children of the fourteen she to whom she gave birth, in the one long room in the back. (1) If I am reading a book entitled “Bensonhurst” – it ain’t East Midwood – but it’s close! If I read Bensonhurst, it was at least in part, to see if it corresponded at all with my family’s history.

Besides, long ago I knew the author.

Bensonhurst (the book) by B. Lawrence Goldberg is a fictionalized narrative of intra-Mafia struggles based upon an actual event – the attempted, nearly successful, assassination of mafia boss Joe Colombo, head of one of the five families of the American Mafia in NYC. Although the assassination attempt appears in the book, the event itself is treated in a cursory fashion. Instead, the narrative probes people involved and the events the events leading up to the assassination attempt attempt including the complex personal relations between Colombo’s operation that of challenger, Joey Gallo and the FBI.

This is a fine book.

It draws the reader, or at least this reader, in from the outset dropping hints that make no sense at first and – as any good crime mystery must – are only clarified somewhat as the book moves along. The dialogue and descriptions are alive, the characters credible people, “complex” as they say for the most part – minus Joey Gallo and Raymond Flynn – two first class “pigs” we would say although cut from a somewhat different mold.

Many books end with “a climax.” Bensonhurt has a post-climax. Life does go on – and in fact the drama itself is not entirely played out at “climax time” – in this case the Colombo assassination attempt at the second Italian Unity Day rally, June 28, 1971.(2) Interestingly, the narrative goes on follow the lives of some of those involved 30 years later, just after the 9-11 terrorist attack (November, 2001). Some of the unfinished business of that incident are played out. No, “Life”doesn’t end – or at least for a number of the characters with the culmination of the assassination attempt, nor does the underlying issue – that the FBI set up – more or less – the Colombo assassination in the hopes of pitting one faction of the crime syndicate against another.

While true enough organized crime “plays dirty” they do have certain rules, guidelines while the FBI has no scruples whatsoever. Who are the biggest gangster in the end – Joey Gallo, Joseph Colombo … or Patrick Flynn (the FBI agent). Who broke – or killed more people? Who set up the ones against the others.

The book is based upon real events and has some actual people – certainly Gallo, Colombo existed in the flesh as did Colombo’s would-be assassin – Jerome Johnson – who died in the act of murder for hire. But – at least for what I could tell – the other characters are fictional. They are all small, low level players in the organized crime network or, like Kinny, related to people involved, frankly at a very low level.

Yet this is a maelstrom into which even the small, tangential players get caught up – in Kinny’s case hardly involved at all – but killed anyway. But these people find themselves caught in the same web, forced to make ethical or unethical decisions all the time that effect not only themselves but their loved ones. Most of them don’t have a full picture of what is at stake, what the plan is (to murder Colombo) and find themselves as pawns for either Gallo, Colombo, the FBI or all three!

This approach – to mix real and fictional characters – I find, is a wonderful way to learn history. I’m thinking of the war novels of Philip Kerr, of Robert Merle’s “Fortunes de France” (about the religious wars of the 16, 17th centuries in France) that do much the same thing. It requires a great deal of knowledge of the subject matter – and no small understanding of personal psychology – what makes people tick – to pull it off but when it is pulled off – and Goldberg manages to do so admirably – one can learn history… from fiction.

This approach – to mix real and fictional characters – I find, is a wonderful way to learn history. I’m thinking of the war novels of Philip Kerr, of Robert Merle’s “Fortunes de France” (about the religious wars of the 16, 17th centuries in France) that do much the same thing. It requires a great deal of knowledge of the subject matter – and no small understanding of personal psychology – what makes people tick – to pull it off but when it is pulled off – and Goldberg manages to do so admirably – one can learn history… from fiction.

In one of the book’s episodes the plays of Shakespeare are alluded to. Two of the protagonists – Kinnyy and Vinnie Travaglia – are trying to lift themselves out of the muck that is their lives; without knowing each other they find themselves in the same Shakespeare class at New York University taught by one Christine Lattimore – whose introduction to the class was one of my favorite moments in the book. And yet academia, college, seems so distant, so far away from the grit, intimidation and betrayal that characterizes the rest of the book. Another world.

But in the end, perhaps not, for what transpired – as night follows day and then day follows night – has the dimension of Shakespearean tragedy. How hard it is to break the cycle, climb out of the maelstrom and how many people fall along the way in divorce, bitter childhoods or in the case of the chubby FBI plant, having his head blow off by Matt Rega, the latter doing what he had to do to advance within the Colombo network.

Bensonhurst looks to be self-published. Never have heard of Gatekeeper Press. It’s as good – or better – than any “crime,” “mystery” novel out there from where I’m sitting. Goldberg has honed his craft. Hope he writes more and finds a main stream publisher as well. Hard these days, I realize, but I look forward to reading whatever comes next.

_______________________________

Footnotes…

  1. I mention all this – there is much more actually – because while I am not much a fan of crime novels – unless written by the Swedish author Henning Mankell – and spend very little time thinking about and none writing about organized crime in the United States – because of the Brooklyn-Bensonhurst connection and for one or two other personal reasons (knowing the author long ago), I bought the book. The fact that I had two uncles (Uncle Sam Stone, Uncle Willie Magazine) who had – from all I can tell – some connection to Meir Lansky’s gang made up largely of working class Jewish kids whose family, like my own, hailed in part or in whole from Grudno (now in Belarus) was a factor as well. Actually there is nothing in Bensonhurst (the book) about Meyer Lansky and how his gang that later turned into an organized crime organization began but that is covered by Robert Lacey’s Littleman: Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life very well. So well in fact, that even though the names are different, parts of it – especially the early parts of Lansky’s life as a kid growing up in Brooklyn, could serve as the family history for the Magaziner part of my family tree. In the portrait Lacy paints of Lansky as a teenager and young adult, I see so much of what I know – admittedly the knowledge is spotty – and most of it anecdotal more than factually-based – of my own father and my many uncles. I’ve probed that history some and come up with some interesting insights we’ll leave aside for the moment.
  2. Under Colombo’s guidance, the League grew quickly and achieved national attention. Unlike other mob leaders who shunned the spotlight, Colombo appeared on television interviews, fundraisers and speaking engagements for the League. In 1971, Colombo aligned the League with Rabbi and political activist Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League, claiming that both groups were being harassed by the federal government.[21] At one point, Colombo posted bail for 11 jailed JDL members

3009 Ave K., East Midwood, Brooklyn New York, the storefront with the aluminum shutter. where for 25 years my grandmother Sarah Magaziner, a widow, ran a dry goods story and raised 7 of the surviving (of 14 births) children in one room in the back, my mother, her daughter Beatrice, being the youngest. Not Bensonhurst… but close.

 

One Comment leave one →
  1. robert Greene permalink
    August 15, 2020 8:32 pm

    great review. Picks up a long of detail on the psychology of the characters and the underlying politics of the people in Bensonhurst

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