The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight is a comic novel about unfunny topics such as murder written by an angry man.
Author Jimmy Breslin, a brash New York Daily News columnist, invents a gang war between a Mafia don “Papa Baccala” and malcontents who want to get a bigger share of the proceeds: 100 percent is the figure they have in mind.
Instead of liquidating his opposition, Baccala decides to keep them quiet by letting them organize a six-day bike race and keep most of the money.
The opposition, led by Kid Sally Palumbo (Palumbo rhymes with Dumbo, get it?) are total incompetents.
Breslin makes fun of the incompetent crooks he invented, but beneath the sometimes ribald humor is a deep anger against competent political crooks and the intertwined police and justice systems that work against the innocent.
The film rights to Gang were sold before the book came out, which probably accounts for the novel’s sales: The novel is mostly a series of theatrical sight gags, funner seen than read about.
The novel’s lasting contribution is undoubtedly its title: Referring to an organization as “a gang that can’t shoot straight” has become shorthand for systemic incompetence.
As one of the 32 people in America who hadn’t seen the film version of The Godfather, I was pleasantly surprised that the novel is not just another gory Mafia story.
Mario Puzo’s story is solid: It’s packed with more characters than a casting call, each of them interesting variations on familiar gangster-film types. The characters and fast-paced plot never let attention drag.
The Godfather is Don Vito Corleone, a well-to-do olive oil importer hoping one of his sons will take over the family business, which is a front for a gambling and extortion empire in New York City.
His eldest, Sonny, is keen on taking over, but too impulsive for the job; second son, Fredo, lacks leadership.
Michael, the youngest son, defied his father by entering the Marine Corps, became a hero, left the military for Dartmouth College, where he met an all-American WASP, whom he wishes to marry.
The outside story is about how Mike becomes head of the business and steps into his father’s role as Don.
The underlying story is about the culture people carry with them, a mindset and values that are resistant to geography and time.
The novel is worth rereading in 2017 for that underlying story alone.
The Godfather by Mario Puzo
G. P. Putnam, 1969. 448 p. 1969 bestseller #2. My grade: A.
Norvin Blake arrives in Sicily in 1886 for the wedding of his best friend, Martel Savigno, who is a Mafia target. When assassins ambush them on the eve of the wedding, Norvin is unable to save Martel and his overseerer. Margherita is widowed before she is wed.
Norvin is called home his dying mother. Margherita and her companion, Lucretzia, have left Sicily and disappeared in New York City before Norvin gets his mother’s affairs settled in New Orleans.
Norvin enters the family cotton business. Mindful of his cowardice during the ambush, he trains himself to behave courageously.
When Sheriff Donnelly gets letters about Mafia activity in New Orleans, he recruits Norvin to help root it out. When Donnelly is murdered, Norvin takes over the chase personally.
Rex Beach lets readers enjoy seeing their predictions of the plot realized, then destroys their expectations in an astounding American version of Mafia mentality.
Beach ties up the story neatly, leaving nothing but the definition of justice unsettled.