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Book Review: Misunderstood Al

A revisionist view of Public Enemy Number One.

Dec 6, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 12 • By EDWARD ACHORN
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I found Get Capone so choppy and episodic—with 367 pages broken into 44 chapters—as to be distracting. The grand arc of the story, the final showdown, seems lost at times amid false starts and detours. Still, Eig’s style is undeniably engaging, reminiscent of snappy dialogue from Thirties movies: He describes early bootleg operators as “mostly gravy-stained losers—men in their twenties who still lived with their mothers.” Follies girls “burst from the seams of their gorgeously designed outfits: leggy, tiny waists cinched in, bountiful breasts thrust forward, smooth and sweet as butter.” A gangster gunned down on the street is “panting like a racehorse.” Another victim in the same hit: “Blackish blood spewed from his mouth, splashing over his face, as if he’d coughed up a bottle of ink.” A legman for the Chicago Tribune who ends up executed is described thus: “No matter what the time of day or night, he’d arrive looking like he just rolled out of bed and grabbed someone else’s clothes by mistake.”

Fun, too, is Capone’s own repartee with the press. To the considerable dismay of his fellow mob bosses, Capone seemed incapable of shutting up when a reporter was around: a love of headlines that irritated authorities in Washington, who concluded that he was rubbing their noses into it. That, no doubt, contributed to his downfall. He even defended what most would take to be indefensible, the murder of human beings to earn a buck: “What does a man think about when he’s killing another man in a gang war?” he asked rhetorically in
one interview. 

Well, maybe he thinks that the law of self-defense, the way God looks at it, is a little broader than the law books have it. Maybe it means killing a man who’d kill you if he saw you first. Maybe it means killing a man in defense of your business, the way you make your money to take care of your wife and child. I think it does. You can’t blame me for thinking there’s worse fellows in the world than me.

Get Capone, naturally, touches on the “Chicago way,” the corruption of law and politics in the Second City, and the use of muscle and dirty tricks to accomplish one’s selfish goals. This may well have a certain resonance in the age of the Obama White House, a product of Chicago ward politics. It is interesting to note that one of the president’s heroes, community organizer Saul Alinsky, consorted with the Capone gang for two years (this is not mentioned by Jonathan Eig) and described Capone as a “public benefactor” and his gang as a “public utility,” supplying “what the people wanted and demanded.”

The underworld can be a fascinating place, and Americans will always find something compelling about people who thwart society to get their way. Whether the ends justify such colorful means, of course, is a question every reader must answer for himself.

Edward Achorn, deputy editorial page editor of the Providence Journal, is the author of Fifty-nine in ’84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, and the Greatest Season a Pitcher Ever Had.

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