Jimmy Breslin returns to the comic mafia


"I Don't Want To Go To Jail," by Jimmy Breslin. Little, Brown. 306 pages. $24.95.

Connoisseurs of a specific kind of nonfiction -- fine reporting or commentary written on deadline -- should find a well-stocked used-book store and dig for "The World of Jimmy Breslin," a paperback with a black-and-white cover photograph of the New York columnist on a telephone in what appears to be a bar. It's a collection of the early, good Breslin, perhaps the best Breslin, newspaper stories with the power to last in the reader's mind well beyond the turn of the page. The most famous of these is "It's An Honor," Breslin's encounter with the man who dug John F. Kennedy's grave in Arlington National Cemetery.

Or, fans of literary journalism might seek out another book, published 17 years later, in 1984, and titled, "The World According To Breslin," a collection of many more great pieces of daily newspaper writing, including a deadline column about the two police officers who transported the mortally wounded John Lennon to the hospital where he died -- a piece Breslin worked and wrote between 11:20 p.m. and 1:30 a.m. on the night of the shooting. "I don't think there is anybody else who can do this kind of work this quickly," Breslin characteristically brags in a preface to the piece.

His success has not been limited to books of newspaper columns. Breslin wrote, "The Good Guys Finally Won," trenchant and humorous observations on the Nixon impeachment summer of 1974. He chronicled the inaugural year of the New York Mets, in "Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?" He received critical praise for a 1996 memoir, "I Want To Thank My Brain For Remembering Me," his reflections on surgery to remove a life-threatening brain aneurysm, and a biography of Damon Run-yon, the Broadway legend whose guys-'n'-dolls storytelling inspired Breslin and got him on the street as a columnist.

Breslin has written a half-dozen novels, bringing his punchy but literate prose style to long-form fiction with less success. And here we are again: "I Don't Want To Go To Jail," an annoying meander through tired territory -- the once-feared New York Mafia.

The story line is of the finest monofilament, almost impossible for the reader to see. The reader finishes sentences with shrugs. The characters come out of doorways and jump out of big cars at a breathless rate; the reader needs a traffic cop to keep them all straight, and Breslin does not provide one. His way of authenticating the dialogue of mobsters -- when in doubt throw in the "F" word -- is tiresome. This book has something to do with wise guys marketing Mafia collector cards in packs of bubble gum. Apparently it was meant to be funny.

More than 30 years ago, Jimmy Breslin wrote a pretty funny novel called "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight," based on some real-life tragicomedies of a New York crime family. It was a best-seller. This latest Mafia book seems like a rework of the first, though it is populated more with characters than with caricatures.

Still, what we have here is a hatful of mildly amusing fictional anecdotes about Mafia guys and their families. It's as if Breslin had been asked to write vignettes by the pound, colorful fragments that could be easily be incorporated into future scripts of "The Sopranos." Or maybe his publisher believes Breslin's new Mafia novel could capitalize on the popularity of "The Sopranos." As a character in this book might say: Whatever. This is old stuff and it's not very good. If you want old stuff that's good, go dig for Breslin in a used-book store.

Dan Rodricks' column first appeared in The Evening Sun in 1979. His "This Just In" column has been published three days a week in The Sun since 1993. He was host of "Rodricks for Breakfast" on WMAR-TV from 1995 until 1999. A collection of his columns, "Mencken Doesn't Live Here Anymore," was published in 1989 and in 1998 he wrote "Baltimore: Charm City."

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