On the Waterfront and Elsewhere
By SCOTT TUROW
THE BIG CROWD
By Kevin Baker
424 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $27.
The members of the “big crowd” referred to in the title of Kevin Baker’s rewarding new novel are, more or less, the bad guys of the story: the pols, mobsters, union goons and grasping business types who fend off reformers and joust for control of New York in the middle of the 20th century. The struggle is especially fierce along the waterfront, where a shadowy Mr. Big oversees the extraction of tribute, sometimes brutally, from everyone who wants to work on or move goods across the docks at a time, before the advent of airfreight, when the port was the main gateway to the city.
The novel’s action is principally seen from the viewpoint of Tom O’Kane, whose brother Charlie is a rising Brooklyn politician, the man Tom counts on to excise the antidemocratic influence of the Big Crowd. Both O’Kanes are immigrants from Bohola, in County Mayo, but Tom is a full generation younger and meets his brother only after he lands in New York in 1939, when he immediately comes to consider Charlie a second father.
With Tom standing by admiringly, Charlie, a former cop who’s a judge when Tom arrives, then becomes the Brooklyn district attorney, an Army general during World War II and finally mayor of New York. When ill health drives him from office, he takes on a more relaxing assignment as the United States ambassador to Mexico, where he is in 1950 when Senator Estes Kefauver begins his nationally televised hearings investigating organized crime across the country, including New York. Charlie is called before the Senate committee, where he tries to deflect insinuations that he was in bed with the New York mob throughout his time in office.
Pivotal to these accusations is the mysterious death, in 1941, during Charlie’s days as Brooklyn D.A., of Abe Reles, a turncoat mob enforcer whose testimony had sent a parade of mob killers, known as Murder Inc., to the electric chair. After being stashed in protective custody in a seedy Coney Island hotel, Reles was found dead on the roof below the window of his room, a suspicious line of knotted bedsheets hanging above.
In the wake of the Kefauver hearings, Tom, now a crusading left-wing lawyer, decides to join the Brooklyn D.A.’s office in hopes of clearing Charlie’s name. The novel moves back and forth in time as his quest unfolds, although much of the action takes place in 1953 in Mexico, where Tom has gone to get Charlie’s answers to lingering questions about Reles’s demise.
If all this sounds a little involved, it is, and the first few chapters of the novel required some paging back and forth. But Baker is a writer of such brio that I followed him obligingly into his maze. One reason is that whatever the convolutions of the political backdrop, Charlie and Tom face a clear and provocative problem from the very start, revolving around a woman called Slim Sadler. A former model and Charlie’s estranged wife, Slim is cavorting with a young matador when Tom arrives in Mexico. Not only does Charlie still long for Slim, so does Tom, who secretly shared her attentions early in her marriage to his brother. One of Baker’s slyest achievements is that by the end of the novel Tom’s affair with Slim has also been linked to the operations of the Big Crowd.
All the O’Kanes — Charlie and Tom and even Slim — are patterned after real people: the former New York mayor William O’Dwyer; the fashion model he married while in office, Sloan Simpson; and O’Dwyer’s brother, Paul, an activist lawyer who was once elected City Council president. Baker is clearly trying to unravel the enigma of how a figure like William O’Dwyer could fly into office on the wings of hope only to find himself sunk in scandal. But Baker knows he’s writing fiction, not history. He has also taken dramatic liberties here, especially with the career and personal life of Paul O’Dwyer, although the notion that any self-respecting prosecutor would permit one brother to investigate the other was, for me, a bridge too far.
Indeed, Baker’s novel is often confounding. The solution to the locked-room puzzle of Reles’s death seemed fairly obvious less than a third of the way into the book — although, in fairness to Baker, there’s meaning in who sees what when. The characters are credible; but probably because they’re torn from real life, they are not realized in great depth. Slim, in particular, is little more than a glamorous cipher, unlikely to fascinate for long.
Baker’s writing is strong — energetic, precise and especially notable for a parade of wonderful metaphors and similes: “The suspicious eyes narrowing to hyphens.” “He was curled up in his hospital chair like a boiled shrimp.” Even so, I was often frustrated by Baker’s habit of using periods instead of commas, yielding a series of puzzling fragments:
“They moved it all, with astonishing alacrity. Using only a hook, a net, a rope and pulley. Communicating solely through a few knowing grunts and gestures, a symphony of leverage and brawn. Faces burnished and cryptic as Indians, eyes glinting at the work at hand. Saying nothing to them.”
Saying nothing to whom?
And yet, for all that, the novel succeeds in creating a compelling imagined world. Most of the telling is through dialogue, and Baker’s re-creation of the cadences and diction of another time is impressive. Charlie is described as “a jake guy,” while Toots Shor says of a bet he’d like to make, “I could use the kale.” In anger, Tom barks “Nuts,” rather than the coarser language of today. And the hit men have the colorful nicknames of bygone times: Kid Twist, Cockeye Dunn, Tick-Tock Tannenbaum.
Best of all, the novel delivers on what the title promises, a detailed rendering of the relationships within that era’s power cabal. “A city like New York,” Charlie tells Tom, “it’s got to have great men — not good men — to run it. . . . We’re held together against the chaos by the grip of a few strong men, that’s all.” Baker offers a vast array of secondary characters — cops and thugs, politicians, bureaucrats, clergymen, bosses and hangers-on — who grow increasingly vivid as they appear and reappear in the gradual recounting of various incidents, like the murder of Peter Panto, an upstart organizer on the docks. Actual historical figures, including Robert Moses and Cardinal Spellman, are served up unsparingly.
I’ve read few other novels that portray in such a nuanced way the temptations of power, the complex division of control in a great metropolis and the perils of political deal-making in that environment. Baker doesn’t like the Big Crowd any more than Tom O’Kane does, but, fortunately for us, he understands its workings very well.
Scott Turow is the author of “Presumed Innocent.” His new novel, “Identical,” will be published next month.