Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Mark Jacobson, "American Gangster" (2007).

I'll admit being a recent convert to the idea that one can be a bit more self-indulgent in one's reading habits during the summer months. The truth is that over the last several years I have tended to devour a lot fewer books during July and August. There's just too much to do, and I generally lack the patience to sit in the heat for long periods. Movies tend to suit my mood a lot more during the "dog days". But this year has been different. I've definitely slowed down, but I am maintaining reasonable progress toward my annual goal. Part of this transformation is due to my selection criteria. I have embraced a form of "light reading". There will be no post-modern epics until it gets colder outside. I won't strain myself with footnotes.

I feel that I've earned some latitude. I don't necessarily need to challenge myself. Yet I'm not tempted to pick up the stereotypical "beach reads" that many folks drool over. There will be no Wally Lamb or Dean Koontz for me. Instead I have chosen to read salacious true crime stories and gossipy essays by contemporary authors. Mark Jacobson's American Gangster certainly fits the bill. C'mon really... Ridley Scott made a film adaptation from one small part of this book. It's a collection of pieces that Jacobson wrote for a such venerable publications as New York magazine and The Village Voice. In totality they express the author's love affair with much of the seamier side of Gotham. In that way, Jacobson is a bit like a pulpy Luc Sante.

The title work is based upon Jacobson's interactions with Frank Lucas, who is perhaps the gamiest thug ever to haunt the pimpin' streets of 70's-era Harlem. This is a guy that actually smuggled kilos of pure heroin in secret compartments of the coffins transporting dead American soldiers home from Vietnam. While now an old man and languishing in the bosom of the Witness Protection Program, Lucas is still a menacing character according to Jacobson's accounts. In fact, the elderly gangster actually threatened to disenfranchise the writer that helped bring his story to Hollywood's attention. Still, in Lucas' own words- "People like the fuck out of me"- and Jacobson appears to be no exception.

It's fairly evident that Jacobson finds a place in his heart for all of his subjects, no matter how coarse or brutal. Peep his account of the rise and fall of Jason Itzler, one-time owner of NY Confidential- a fine purveyor of high-priced "escorts". This Jewish kid sprung from money, and clawed his way into the sex-for-hire-marketplace, eventually becoming a multimillionaire owner of a chic Manhattan penthouse/harem, before landing with a prominent thud in Riker's Island. Many journalists would feel obligated to write him off as an exploitive brat, yet Jacobson allows him to tell his own story. In this day and age, the lack of moralizing is not only notable, but nearly non-existent. Imagine a writer allowing his readership to form their own conclusions.

Perhaps it's because Jacobson is so familiar with his chosen milieu that he can get away with his overt stance of moral relativism. After all, there are enough armchair quarterbacks to pass holy judgment. The essays in American Gangster are concerned with providing vistas into airtight rooms and closed societies. How else is he going to get these ne'er-do-wells to reveal themselves without maintaining a value-neutral approach? I don't want my summer reading seasoned with salt-and-pepper ethical pronouncements, whether the subjects are heroes like Wynton Marsalis or comedy kingpin George Schultz... or shady characters like Chinatown gang-leader Nicky Louie. After all, I'm after escapism.

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