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Nation & World

Writer Tells of Gritty New York Underworld

MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

We do have for you, however, what was to be the second conversation on gang life, with that consummate storyteller, Jimmy Breslin. Columnist, author, raconteur, Jimmy Breslin has done it all. He supposedly retired in 2004 after an incredible career that included a Pulitzer Prize for commentary and many other awards for both novels and investigative reporting. But he is back with a new book, "The Good Rat," a true story. And he's with us now from our New York bureau to talk about it.

JIMMY BRESLIN: Hello, absolutely.

MARTIN: I'll bet you raconteur is one of those fancy-pants words you probably hate.

BRESLIN: No, that's fair.

MARTIN: It's all right?

BRESLIN: I'll accept anything today.

MARTIN: Oh, okay. So let's talk about "The Good Rat." The good rat in your book is an elderly man named Burton Kaplan. Tell us about him and how he came to be the focus of this story.

BRESLIN: I went to the eastern district of New York courthouse in Brooklyn, federal court, for the trial of two cops, Mafia cops they were called. And I had promised after speaking to people at Harper Collins Echo Press to do a book on them. There was big publicity about them. And I talked to them and one of them said he knew me from some bar in - we were going over the - whatever, you go over the past. Two detectives, in trouble, retired. And I went back in the courtroom, and I hated them.

MARTIN: Burton Kaplan. Well, Kaplan - Kaplan, I don't know (unintelligible) people involved in the case know Kaplan. So somebody said, where are you? They was asked where he was right now and he said I'm present, I'm incarcerated in Allenwood Prison. He said yes. They said are you in the Mafia? He said no, I can't be in the Mafia, I'm Jewish.

With that then I sat up, what is this? This is some guy. Then he said, they asked him, has he committed any crimes? What were the crimes he committed to put him in jail? So he said, well, drugs, murder, manslaughter, assault, grand larceny, everything. He was married for 49 years, he said. He had a daughter, and she's a state Supreme Court justice. Now how he did that, I don't know. Nobody does, but there she is. Committed every crime but killing a baby.

Now he went to - they asked him, have you ever committed any crimes in prison? He said yes, I was assaulted and I had a friend of mine send me $1,000, and I gave it to a Mexican, and he went and assaulted the guy back. He assaulted him pretty good, too.

Then he sat and he looked out at the audience and he said that's what jail is like, you know. I said, what am I going do with this? Look at this fellow. He was tremendous as a witness.

MARTIN: Well, what is it about him that so intrigued you?

BRESLIN: I'll tell you why, because one word went through my mind, Dostoevsky, looking at him as he talked. And that, of course, it intrigued me.

MARTIN: How is Kaplan different from the other rats in the story?

BRESLIN: Oh, anybody else, gangsters in the Mafia that are known. There's nothing about them but crime. Kaplan committed more crimes, but he did it in a suit. He looked like he had the demeanor of somebody in the garment center, and he put together more crimes than they were able to think of, the gangsters. It was tremendous.

MARTIN: And you're like, how could this be?

BRESLIN: That's what you say, how could this be? Here's a Jewish guy from Brooklyn. He went to Brooklyn Technical High School. And he's in with Gas Pipe Keso, and they were running murders for the Luchese crime family, one of the five.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of which, you as a journalist, you covered the Mafia for decades.

BRESLIN: Forever.

MARTIN: Forever. Are you even the subject of a famous beatdown in 1970, I think was it because a member of the Luchese family didn't like something you wrote? Do I have that right?

BRESLIN: Yeah, but it never happened though.

MARTIN: It never happened?

BRESLIN: I don't know who put... No, that is your great new blogs, and somebody just put that out. I've had physical problems on the streets, but it always was in racial situations. A riot in Brooklyn, a riot in Harlem, never any other form of trouble.

MARTIN: Tell me about - what is it about the Mafia that so interested you all these years? And I was also wondering, were you ever worried all the time you were doing this reporting?

BRESLIN: No. I never worried. Mostly people want to have their names in the newspaper. So they treat you like you're important. What interests you about them, because they're interesting. They - it's a way of life. It's bad. You're never supposed to extol it or glamorize it like they did in "The Godfather." I always thought that was a terrible thing. I've made fun of them and I've - but you're supposed to write about them, you can't ignore them. They've been a part of life in this city forever. Not so much now. You go around now, the streets are barren and there's nobody left.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you about that. You think the mob is all but done?

BRESLIN: No. How can it be done when the premise for the mob is that you can make money without working? If you're sitting at school, which you hate, so you leave school, go out and hang out on street corners and run errands for people and get paid and you don't have to get out of bed till 12 o'clock or so, and go down to the club, hang out. Then go out, you collect some money someplace, and then you go out. You got a car, you got jewelry, and you got girls.

MARTIN: But listen, you write in the book, you say - you were talking about watching Bobby DeNiro, the actor Robert DeNiro in some mobster comedy on TV and you say, I feel sorry for him because these Mafia parts at which he is so superb and which he could do for the next 30 years, will soon no longer exist. Why won't they?

BRESLIN: Because the parts are going to be too young. The old guys are gone. They really have been swept up in these arrests. So what are you left with? Twenty-year-olds that wanna, that want money and they don't have to work for it. De Niro's too old for that.

MARTIN: Mmm hmm.

BRESLIN: The guy is over 60, isn't he? Come on, he can't play those kids anymore.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you are listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and we are speaking with the legendary writer Jimmy Breslin about his latest book, "The Good Rat." Can we talk a little bit more about rats for a minute? You know, we've had periodic conversations on this show about snitching, and there's been this whole conversation about whether the stop snitching thing, particularly in the African-American communities, is about keeping ordinary people from coming forward to report crimes, you know, just really witness intimidation; or is it about honor in some way, about the idea that law enforcement has become so reliant on informants that they really aren't doing their job anymore, they're just kind of waiting for people to inform on other people and that's kind of distorted the whole thing. Did that kind of conversation go on in the old days? I mean was there a big conversation about snitching in the old days?

BRESLIN: There always has been a conversation about it, and there always have been extravagant claims that the word omerta keeps everybody silent, nobody talks. It's absolute nonsense. You can't keep them quiet when they come in. I mean they don't want to go - if they're getting offered - if I give up you, then you don't have to go to jail, well, I'll give you up in five minutes. I don't want to go to jail. That's the key to it. Here Burton Kaplan had 19 years, I believe, he still owes the government on drug charges, I guess, and he - they bring him in and talk to him and he says, no, I can do my time like a man. And the fellow speaking to him, the United States attorney, said what are you, the only honorable person? You're going to stand up while everybody else is talking, which they were. A couple of days later, a lawyer called the United States attorney and said that Burt Kaplan wants to talk to somebody, and that was it.

MARTIN: So basically, they all talk at some point.

BRESLIN: Yes, I don't know anybody that doesn't.

MARTIN: But why is he the good rat?

BRESLIN: Because he was on the good side, the government side. He wasn't just ratting for himself. It's a very good title. How dare you question it?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I wouldn't dare. Now, you said earlier that Kaplan reminds you of a character from a Russian novel, from Dostoevsky. And "The Good Rat," your book, is this kind of sprawling cast. You know, it's got these big questions about, you know, who's good, who's not good, and do you think - these days, I don't know, we're sort of used to thinking of some of these crime characters as these kind of mythic figures, the heads of these organizations.

BRESLIN: Oh, forget about it.

MARTIN: And you that that's all hype, it was always hype?

BRESLIN: Absolutely. In fact, here and there, somebody would have enough brains to run a thing, but normally, you don't need a gangster with a high IQ. It doesn't take any brains - I mean, to send a guy across the street for cigars would be hard on them sometimes. No, a lot of them can't read and write.

FBI: don't talk. Write notes if you've got something to say, and they all nodded yes.

So who has something to say? (Unintelligible) Cannot read and write. Peter Gotti has trouble writing. So everybody's in there, they write notes to each other. These two are sitting there. They wanted to say something. They couldn't.

MARTIN: But where is this - where's all this mythology coming from, then? You think it's just something we kind of made up because it makes a good story?

BRESLIN: Absolutely. Newspapers - the people that write for newspapers and the movies.

MARTIN: Speaking of the movies, you know, gangsters have been back this year. I don't know if you've checked any of these films out, like "American Gangster" was a big hit. There were a couple of documentaries this year about these various kind of crime figures from kind of the Harlem heroin scene. What do you think? What do you think about that? You think it's the same old thing, myth-making, because it makes a good story?

BRESLIN: Absolutely. The story comes first. In the case of the, what, "American Gangster," Frank Lucas. He was an imposing figure in Harlem. Yes, in the drug business, though.

MARTIN: Do you think that inevitably, the entertainment industry winds up glorifying these people?

BRESLIN: Well, who else are they going to glorify? You want to - let's make a big movie on Warren Buffet.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BRESLIN: Or a big movie of Frank Lucas who's in "American Gangster." Which do you want? Let's make a big movie on Gates from...

MARTIN: Bill Gates from Microsoft.

BRESLIN: Bill Gates, big movie. Let's go, and we'll pack the place - with what? I'll come in with a big movie on John Gotti or somebody.

MARTIN: So in a way, we kind of need these people to feed our fantasy?

BRESLIN: From time, it goes back. What is this, the first - murder is a heavyweight. That's the main event. Everybody will read about that.

MARTIN: What did you think of "The Sopranos," by the way?

BRESLIN: I was working, doing columns on Sundays and Sunday nights. I never saw it.

MARTIN: No way.

BRESLIN: I knew a young lady that was doing the scripts for them, Robin Green. I knew a few things, but I didn't - I never saw it.

MARTIN: Come on.

BRESLIN: I had a little trouble with it because it was based in the suburbs, and I don't recognize anything that doesn't have an el running through it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: That would be the subway, for people who don't know what Mr. Breslin is talking about.

BRESLIN: Subway up on stilts, the el train.

MARTIN: Subway up on stilts, that's right. Well, what are you going to do next?

BRESLIN: I started a book - well, I don't know what I'm going to do during this election year. I guess I'm going to have to write for papers, but I started a book some time ago, the minute I finished this "Good Rat," finished all the work on it. I promised the Viking Press a book on Branch Rickey. They have a Great American Series, they call it, and I always considered him one of the greats.

He brought Jackie Robinson into baseball, and it - going over the way he did it, the Robinson, to push him into a - through a white stone wall that didn't want him near them - Rickey did it by going to the state legislature, by doing all kinds of things that nobody knew he could do. He had been - had a law degree from Michigan, University of Michigan. Nobody knew that. They thought he was an old baseball guy.

He had a number of things, and he got this Robinson, he found him and got him through. It's very interesting.

MARTIN: It is. Well, keep us posted.

BRESLIN: Yup. Well, I'll finish the book, and that's that.

MARTIN: Jimmy Breslin is an award-winning columnist and author. His latest book is "The Good Rat," and he joined us from NPR's New York bureau. Mr. Breslin, thank you so much for coming to talk to us.

BRESLIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.