(Editor’s note: This is the 118th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s pick comes from Steven Nester, the host of Poets of the Tabloid Murder, a weekly Internet radio show heard on the Public Radio Exchange [PRX]. Since 1998, he’s been interviewing mystery-fiction authors from Elmore Leonard to George Pelecanos. He’s also a freelance writer who has published in Mystery Scene and Firsts Magazine. Nester currently lives in McKinney, Texas.)
The road to Umberto’s Clam House, the legendary mob hangout in New York’s Little Italy, is paved with wise guys who couldn’t make the grade. Those not culled by their own treacherous kind, or those lacking the street smarts to make a buck the old-fashioned way by scamming or thievery succumb to the soul-numbing grind of chasing down unpaid loans from lushes and degenerate gamblers. Picture Dilbert as a loan shark; but instead of being stuck in a cubicle, he’s trapped in a shot-and-whiskey joint ministering to his penny-ante clients while dreaming of the big score that could save him.
One of those hapless businessmen is Louis Brunellesches, a guy seriously lacking in that one mafia commodity that no criminal can succeed without: respect.
Cut Numbers (1988), by Nick Tosches, is a criminal bildungsroman about a late-blooming hoodlum who feels the chill of autumn as he realizes that the sun won’t shine forever and that he’d better start making hay. Stylistically, this story exists between the pontifical omerta of The Godfather and the poetic crooks of George V. Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Cut Numbers is also in equal parts a mafia thriller, a love story, and a thoughtful meditation on the meaning of life wiseguy-style.
Played across the rundown landscapes of Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Newark, New Jersey, during a time when yuppies ruled the earth, there’s no disco ball illuminating the cast of Cut Numbers. These goons live in the shadows, and their gritty dramas play out unnoticed by the blow-dried young professionals who slowly infiltrate their neighborhoods.
Louis does have one hole card, his uncle Giovanni, who gives him something more valuable than money if only Louis would listen: the wisdom of the ages. An old-school Mafioso in his twilight years, Giovanni begins acting strangely in Louis’ eyes by procuring for himself a passport and for the first time in his life a telephone in his apartment. Louis begins to pay attention. Something’s afoot, but Louis can’t figure out what and the old man’s not talking. Louis may have his hole card, but he can‘t use it if he hasn’t been dealt into the game.
The plan is simple: Uncle Giovanni has a scheme to fix the New York State Lottery that will finance his retirement to the village of his birth in Italy. He also plans to take down an old rival, the skeletal Frank Scarpa, with the same bullet. Sly, practical, and fully aware that there’s nothing new under that lucky old sun, Giovanni is merely dusting off one of his more inspired criminal chestnuts from decades before when he fixed the numbers rackets. Giovanni enlists freelance hit man and all-around-sociopath Joe Brusher to con Scarpa into investing in his scheme. Of course, Scarpa thinks Brusher is on his team. Brusher plans to kill Giovanni for his cut, but the old man has all the angles figured. He knows he has no friends in his line of work and understands all too well that anyone who thinks he has a new idea “is a fool who hasn’t been around.”
In the meantime, Louis and his girlfriend, Donna--the only real light in his life--break up, allowing him the time to focus on his turnaround, which comes in the guise of a loser gambler beholden to him. Louis is wise enough to know it would be mere vanity to believe his deus ex machina could come from anything grander than this. Unable to make good on his debts, the gambler signs over his sideline business to Louis. Dreams Inc. creates custom-made porn in a dingy midtown basement. Louie discovers that the meaning of life, for the time being anyway, is between a woman’s legs--figuratively and literally. Dreams Inc. is a gold mine until he can move on to more respectable endeavors. Inspired by fate (the wind blows an investment prospectus to him as he sits on a park bench), he quickly turns his street knowledge of greed, vigorish, and playing the odds into the seed money of a nascent Wall Street operator. Louis’ girlfriend sees the transformation so clearly that upon their rapprochement she says, “finally, after all these years you’ve discovered America.”
And not a minute too soon, either. Louis is surrounded by septuagenarian mobsters desperate to line their pockets before moving to retirement homes as the bodies pile up. If dreams were nickels, these profligate gangsters ruminate, this time around they’d put them under the mattress instead of in the slot machine.
With mordant wit Tosches shows us the human side of gangsters long before Tony Soprano made his bones, and that gangsters, like normal citizens, take heart medicine, watch their diet, and put their pants on one leg at a time.
While everybody talks in the vernacular in Cut Numbers, Tosches’ writing elevates the philosophical reveries of gangsters and cleanses them of their Brooklyn accents and garlic breath to enable them to reach a certain poetic level that is not out of place. Greed, in the mind of Louis, becomes “that golden stitching in fortune’s skirt that all men coveted,” and at other points his ability to turn the ordinary to the prophetic is spot-on. For instance: After musing on the investment prospect that blew to him in the park, Louis acts in a way no reader could misinterpret: “Then he rolled it into a spyglass and looked through it into the sky.”
A musicologist, autodidact, and scholar of the classics, Tosches sprinkles his narrative with bits of history and philosophy all in the service of putting his money where his mouth is, proving it’s the wise man who understands that everything has been done or said before. He also knows when to stop, before the reader loses the momentum and focus of the moment. The inner dimensions of Cut Numbers makes it a crime book for the thinking person. The action and plotting will have any reader trying to outguess the wise old Giovanni until the last page.