Sunday, December 11, 2016

Review: The Book of American-Jewish Gangsters: A Pictorial History.

The Book of American-Jewish Gangsters: A Pictorial History. The Book of American-Jewish Gangsters: A Pictorial History. by Maxmillian Zellner
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Look, I’ve probably got more empathy than anyone in the world for the challenges of writing a synthetic history of the Jewish gangster. I’ve also got as much experience as anyone when it comes to exploring vintage Jewish gangster photos. So, yeah, I was rooting for this to work out.

On the plus side of the scale, there are a handful of photos here I’ve never seen. And there are a handful of entries that feature individuals or theories that are new to me.

But, after that, this really is just too amateur a production to recommend. For starters, it’s riddled with typos. And I don’t mean just misspelled words. There are spots where it seems clear that Zellner hasn’t even read his own work. My favorite example comes on pages 338 and 339. Talking about the Shapiro brothers, Zellner tells us first “Irving, although the youngest, was considered the gang’s leader.” Then we learn – 17 lines later – “Meyer, 25,…was youngest, he was considered the leader of the gang.”

There are many others – many – but they usually take longer excerpts. Suffice it to say we hear about Bugsy Siegel’s murder of Big Greenie three or four different times with varying details.

There’s also the substantial matter of the complete absence of documentation and citation. It may be that Zellner has some good new sources here, but who’s to know? He seems to have spent a lot of time visiting the sites of long-ago crimes – something he makes clear with quick parenthetical mentions of what those sites look like today – but maybe he’s also done some good archival research. He has an irritating way of suggestion some speculation or other as fact: we get, for instance, at least a couple different theories for which gangsters were involved in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. But without a sense of his sources, this is no more than an old guy opining at the senior center.

And then there’s the matter of sloppiness over what constitutes “Jewish” (to say nothing of “gangster”). When you give a book this title, you imply that each photographed person is a Jewish gangster unless otherwise specified. But we get entries on Gus Winkler and Matt Kolb, among others, who most clearly were not Jewish.

But the biggest flaw, and the one I empathize most with, is the organization here. I’ve tried (and am still trying) to write a history of the Jewish gangster, but the challenge is to find a frame for it. For Chicago, I tried once to organize my history along regions of the city – downtown/First Ward, Maxwell Street, the North Side, and the Syndicate – but it didn’t hold together. It felt like a braid unraveling.

Zellner has “solved” the problem by putting his entries in alphabetical order. The result is a book that makes little sense to read straight through. It’s reminiscent of the “encyclopedias” of organized crime that Carl Sifakis used to write, but Sifakis at least stuck to his own format. Zellner spends 4-5 pages on some and then gives quick bursts on others.

At the same time as it makes no sense as a sustained argument, though, it also has no index. There’s no way to find passing references to characters who fall below his threshold for a full – like my family, for instance, who get just one mention – so the best that can be said is that this is like surfing the darker corners of the web, only on paper.

I’m serious when I say I have all sorts of empathy for Zellner. I suspect there’s a great deal of research here. It’s just that what he’s given us is more a series of private notes than a work that’s ready for public distribution.

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