Who can resist a good mafia novel? I can’t. This one is written as a fictional memoir, and in every sense it’s hard to put down.
E. Duke Vincent has written his first novel—after a career in the military and in writing for TV and film—in what must be his early 80’s, and it concerns the one summer in 1953, when he was in between high school and college. Mafia Summer (400 pages, Bloomsbury, $4.50) is what he calls it, and a vivid and seemingly first hand—certainly first person, view of the mafia is what he offers.
Vinny Vesta, the narrator of the tale, is a handsome and articulate nearly-eighteen year old who lives in a tenement in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York City. Vinny’s father, Gino, who is a ranking member of one powerful mafia family, has a handsome spread in Connecticut, but he keeps it real, and keeps his enemies guessing, by living in a middle- (or lower-middle) class section of New York.
The narrator creates the world of stick ball and other street games with ethnic intensity, and he creates a vivid and characterful gang of “Icemen” to be part of Vinny’s junior mafia gang. Vinny, with Boychick, Red, Benny, Louie, Stuff, and Bouncer, all of whom become wonderful characters in this novel, carries out minor capers, like the theft of stolen merchandize or the planning of various jobs for other gangs. They are watched and more or less protected by Vinny’s Dad and his cronies, but they are just exercising their muscle as the novel opens.
Another important thing happens as the novel opens too: Vinny often takes escape from the summer heat on the fire escape of his building, and one night he sees his young Jewish neighbor reading by flashlight. When they get into conversation, it turns out that Sidney, the neighbor, is reading The Odyssey. Vinny has heard of the book, but he can’t imagine anyone reading it, much less reading it by flashlight in the middle of the night. From this encounter the two strike up a friendship, and before long, Vinny is tagging along with Sidney to the New York Public Library, where together they discover the worlds to be uncovered in all the books there. Sidney takes on Vinny’s education, and in thanks, Vinny tries to protect him and teach him some street smarts.
It isn’t long, however, before these two worlds collide. Nick Colucci is the head of a rival young mafia gang called The Rattlers. He and his crew mug Sidney one day and steal his yarmulke, just because they object to seeing Jewish kids in their neighborhood. When Vinny challenges this thug, a simmering conflict comes out into the open.
For the rest of the novel Nick and his handlers are trying to get the best of Vinny, Sidney and their other friends. Because we are talking about the mafia, the stakes are about as high as they could be before we get very far into the summer.
Even worse, various opposing mafia leaders are trying to bring Vinny’s dad Gino down, and as a result Vinny finds himself in harm’s way more than once. But when Vinny and his friends, especially Sidney, are threatened and even harmed, Gino has to react. Once he does, all the mafia seem deeply involved.
Vincent tells the story well, and I can say that it makes a powerful account of a summer. The novelist bases enough of the story on factual events and a lot else by memory, and the result, as I say, is riveting. I can’t imagine a better novel to put on your next summer reading list.