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From “the lit world’s sharpest chronicler of New York’s past” (Rolling Stone), a novel of two Irish brothers who travel from the gangland waterfront to the halls of power
Based on one of the great unsolved murders in mob history, and the rise-and-fall of a real-life hero, The Big Crowd tells the sweeping story of Charlie O’Kane. He is the American dream come to life, a poor Irish immigrant who worked his way up from beat cop to mayor of New York at the city’s dazzling, post-war ...
From “the lit world’s sharpest chronicler of New York’s past” (Rolling Stone), a novel of two Irish brothers who travel from the gangland waterfront to the halls of power
Based on one of the great unsolved murders in mob history, and the rise-and-fall of a real-life hero, The Big Crowd tells the sweeping story of Charlie O’Kane. He is the American dream come to life, a poor Irish immigrant who worked his way up from beat cop to mayor of New York at the city’s dazzling, post-war zenith. Famous, powerful, and married to a glamorous fashion model, he is looked up to by millions, including his younger brother, Tom. So when Charlie is accused of abetting a shocking mob murder, Tom sets out to clear his brother’s name while hiding a secret of his own.
The charges against Charlie stem from his days as a crusading Brooklyn DA, when he sent the notorious killers of Murder, Inc., to the chair—only to let a vital witness go flying out a window while under police guard. Now, out of office, Charlie lives in a shoddy, Mexico City tourist hotel, eaten up with regrets and afraid he will be indicted for murder if he returns to the U.S. To uncover what really happened, Tom must confront stunning truths about his brother, himself, and the secret workings of the great city he loves.
Moving from the Brooklyn waterfront to city hall, from the battlefields of World War II to the beaches of Acapulco, to the glamorous nightclubs of postwar New York, The Big Crowd is filled with historical powerbrokers and gangsters, celebrities and socialites, scheming cardinals and battling, dockside priests. But ultimately it is a brilliantly imagined, distinctly American story of the bonds and betrayals of brotherhood.
"With The Big Crowd, Kevin Baker earns the title of Best American Historical Novelist - heck, maybe best American novelist, period. This inspired, fun, serious, thought-provoking, page-turning book gives all the good, old pleasures: if you read it on the subway, be prepared to miss your stop. But Baker also raises the key questions about New York, about America, about who we are. Charlie and Tom O'Kane are characters for the ages."-Darin Strauss , author of Half a Life "A fluid writer with a clear grasp of history"—Associated Press
“[A] rewarding new novel…Baker’s writing is strong – energetic, precise and especially notable for a parade of wonderful metaphors and similes…The novel succeeds in creating a compelling imagined world…Best of all, the novel delivers on what the title promises, a detailed rendering of the relationships within that era’s power cabal. ‘A city like New York,’ Charlie tells Tom, ‘it’s got to have great men – not good men – to run it…We’re held together against the chaos by the grip of a few strong men, that’s all.’ Baker offers a vast array of secondary characters – cops and thugs, politicians, bureaucrats, clergymen, bosses and hangers-on – who grow increasingly vivid as they appear and reappear in the gradual recounting of various incidents, like the murder of Peter Panto, an upstart organizer on the docks. Actual historical figures, including Robert Moses and Cardinal Spellman, are served up unsparingly. I’ve read few other novels that portray in such a nuanced way the temptations of power, the complex division of control in a great metropolis and the perils of political deal-making in that environment. Baker doesn’t like the Big Crowd any more than Tom O’Kane does, but, fortunately for us, he understands its workings very well.”—The New York Times
"Baker (Dreamland, Paradise Alley, Strivers Row) takes another juicy bite out of the Big Apple, demonstrating once again that nobody does old New York—in all its glamour and its grit—better." —Booklist
New York, 1939
He saw him for the first time looking up from the ship’s hold. His brother. Filling up almost the entire hatchway of the Saint George, a tall man in a good gray coat and matching fedora. Broad-shouldered and big-chested, standing wide-legged against the Manhattan skyline, smiling and confident as he bellowed out his name.
“Tom O’Kane! Seaman Thomas O’Kane!”
His eyes blinked and watered in the darkness. Blurred now after his five days in the hold, the fourteen before that zigzagging their way all over the North Atlantic, trying to give the slip to the U-boats. It was a month after the Athenia went down, just sixty miles past Rockall, and they were crazy with worry for the submarines. Any available hands scanning the rough gray waves of the Atlantic all day long, trying to spot the telltale periscope.
A madman’s task—and what would they have done if they did see one? A single freighter, ten thousand tons, out on the ocean alone in those days before the convoys. Say a Hail Mary, and kiss your ass goodbye. Keeping radio silence, trying to run outside the usual sea lanes, maneuvering this way and that like a staggered pig, trying to fool the torpedoes. Running with their lights off at night, the men sweating in their hammocks. Listening to the engines rumble, each silently asking himself did they have to make so goddamned much noise.
He loved every minute of it. His first big adventure, not five months out of Trinity. Setting forth from Lismirrane with the spalpeens, off to reap and bind the oats, and take in the harvest for the Cotswolds farmers. The lot of them walking thirty miles to Kilfree, just to catch the train for the coast. The poorest men in all Bohola: wiry and earth-hardened, bent in obeisance to the ground, from so many years of pushing some other man’s dirt about. Their traveling clothes already half in tatters, patched coats and threadbare shirts, boot soles flapping on the road. Carrying all the belongings they would need wrapped in a neckerchief or a flour sack. Lowly even compared to the sailor’s duffel he had made so sure to buy used from the gombeen-man in Dublin, knowing he would be traveling with them.
All his life he had seen them come and go. Men too poor to own any noticeable land of their own, and too proud to work the fields of their neighbors. Gone for the harvest at the end of each summer, to work the fields of Somerset and Devon, Gloucestershire and Hereford. Back with the first frost, thinner and browner than ever, to lie with the wife and sow another mouth they couldn’t feed with, then off again in spring for the planting.
He’d always wondered what it was like, where they went and how they lived. Thinking of them years later when he heard something that a remorseless killer his brother sent to the chair liked to say, a man called Dasher Abbandando, who journeyed to cities all over America to murder other men for the money.
“Hey, Dasher, where you been?”
“Hey, Dasher, where’d you get all the cash?”
They had no cash, these men of his village, had spent their whole lives laboring for the smell of a pound. They walked half the distance to Kilfree that first night, then made camp on the side of the road. He feared at first they did it for his sake. It had been many years since he’d walked fifteen miles in a day and never in shoes, wobbling openly from the blisters by the time they stopped. But no, he was relieved to see, they laid their burdens down by a familiar copse, the stumps and the circle of charred earth from old fires there like a faerie ring. He realized this was part of the adventure, too—camping out on the road like tinkers, and the wind rustling in the trees over their heads, telling themselves for a night that they were free men
The talk and laughter around the fire seemed constrained at first, in the presence of the schoolmaster’s son. He was frantic to make sure it wasn’t, giving out with the two whole bottles of the White Bush his old man had made sure to slip into his duffel for just this purpose, fixing him with his hard look: “This is for making friends, not for you. Nobody likes a drunken man.”
He passed them both around liberally that night, though he had intended to save one for the boat. They wondered at its smoothness, their own small flasks filled with the raw poteen made out in the bogs behind the school, all they had ever had in their lives: “Ah, you can feel how that goes down!”
And as the night went on their reserve fell away, sharing their food around the fire. The talk gayer and the voices rising, men at the start of journey. Telling stories and singing the old songs, “Travelling Doctor’s Shop” and “Kilkelly,” and assuring him of the high regard they had for his father, a Cork man they couldn’t see fitting at first, until he married Pat-Peggy’s daughter and built his own house right among them, and helped out each year with the mehil. Talk he didn’t want, and was embarrassed by, but was pleased to hear anyway in the soft October night, so much the way he had always pictured it.
The next day they made the train at Kilfree—a wooden toy of a train, he understood later, laboring like the devil up and down the low hills. Taking six hours to get them to the coast, where they caught the boat for Liverpool. A ragged excitement running through the travelers even there, so soon after the Athenia—Do ya think we’ll be torpedoed, then? Ah, no, never, the Jerries want us on their side. “Us,” is it? You think we matter to them more than a flea on a pig’s backside?—all of it spoken with the confidence unique to those absolutely ignorant of a situation.
There were lifeboat drills, and on deck a soldier in full gear, with bayonet and washbasin helmet, much to the sniggering delight of the spalpeens. Grim gray destroyers knifing through the seas off both sides, signal flags bristling in the stiff wind—a startling change to the ageless world he had just left. He walked the deck the whole time, taking it all in, delighted to find that he kept his stomach even on the choppy crossing. Then they were over, the men from home chirping their goodbyes as they went to catch their train to the south. Whistling as they went, cheerful about the war, sure they would get a good wage with all the English lads off to play soldier boy.
It was easy enough for him to get a ship for much the same reason, the tramps all desperate for hands. Hired on without so much as a question about his experience, though he knew he must have looked as out of place as a bishop in a brothel. He was indeed the worst sailor alive, something Charlie twitted him about ever after. He set his hand at most everything, like the rest of their ragbag crew, and was good at none of it. The work more exhausting than he could have possibly imagined. Stoking the boilers for a watch, proud to be doing it because he knew that Charlie had once done the same all the way from New York down to Rio de Janeiro and back—his father reading his letter about it to them all, over the kitchen table.
“A crew like that, it’s no wonder you missed the torpedoes,” Charlie liked to tease him later. “The Jerries couldn’t tell which way you’d steer the thing.”
When they made New York Harbor, the captain half dead on the bridge from work and worry, he fairly danced about the deck to take it all in. The Frenchman’s statue, sure, with its green arm held aloft halfway between a salute and a traffic cop’s challenge. But more than that the mountains of skyscrapers around the Battery, and the madness of the harbor: tugboats and fireboats, freighters and garbage scows. Rail barges over from Hoboken and the fishing trawlers making for the Fulton Market, and the passenger ferries from Staten Island, and sleek, swift sailboats, and rich men’s yachts, sailed up from Long Island Sound or down the Hudson. Each of them as proud as an admiral’s flagship. A dozen collisions barely avoided every minute, as each blasted away with its horns and whistles and random, triumphant ejaculations of water shot high in the air.
All his life he would marvel on it. A whole city of people—the biggest city in the world—saying over and over, Here we are, here we are, here we are, in all their grand gaudiness, and their arrogance and self-obsession, and their wonderful audacity.
That was all he saw of it, then, before they were herded belowdecks. The captain rightly afraid he’d have no crew at all to sail back through the torpedoes once they got their pay and hit dry land.
Tom hadn’t counted on that. Sure that he’d be able to steal off once he reached New York, even if it meant jumping into the harbor. Finding himself stuck instead deep in the hull of the Saint George, with its thick stink of bilge water and diesel fumes, machine oil and human excrement. The rats running over their feet in the daytime and their faces at night. The captain keeping constant guard at the hatchway, himself or the first mate with a shotgun, promising to blow off the head of the first man who tried to come up. The rope ladders pulled up in any case, no way to rush him even if they wanted to call his bluff.
No one knew he was there. There’d been no time to wire off a cable to Charlie, they had left Liverpool so quickly to catch the tide and sneak out past the U-boats. There was no one in the world who knew where he was, no way to get word out to his brother, and he realized in his maudlin self-pity that if they sailed back with him still in the hold, and got torpedoed somewhere out along the broad Atlantic, he would die without a soul to know what happened to him.
It was the longshoremen who saved him. Swinging down into the hold like some lost tribe. Hooks slung over their shoulders, stripped bare to the waist despite the cooling days.
He had wondered, before leaving Liverpool, what there could possibly be left to ship out from England. All the last odds and ends of Empire: Frozen trout and salmon. Clotted cream, and single-malt whiskey, and fine-tailored tweed suits, and even a set of grandfather clocks. And underneath it all the gold. He and the shipmates spent a good deal of time staring at that, once they discovered it. Shipped in bars too long and heavy to possibly steal or hide, stamped with the imprimatur of the Bank of England, and His Majesty’s government, and packed in long, thick crates like coffins. The body of England, come to rest in America.
They moved it all, with astonishing alacrity. Using only a hook, a net, a rope and pulley. Communicating solely through a few knowing grunts and gestures, a symphony of leverage and brawn. Faces burnished and cryptic as Indians, eyes glinting at the work at hand. Saying nothing to them. Men held at gunpoint in the hold of a ship no concern of theirs, nothing they had not seen before, as he would come to learn.
He tried to talk to them, asking them to call Charlie, attempting to slip them a note with his name and last known address on it. One of them at last pausing in mid-haul of a grandfather clock, an item so ludicrously fragile and vulnerable in the iron hold of the boat—replying in a voice so low Tom didn’t realize he was even talking to him at first.
“Charlie-O? Judge O’Kane? Yeah, all right, he’s a jake guy.”
The precious slip of paper with Charlie’s telephone number and address disappearing into one giant hooked hand, the wicked point nearly scraping Tom’s chest. Summoned, he appeared at the hatchway not two hours later, calling out his name.
“Tom! Tom O’Kane!”
The next thing he knew he was being hauled up out of the hold, Charlie’s own thick hand grabbing onto his collar. Yanked up on the deck like a gasping mackerel, eyes blinking in the unaccustomed light of the Port of New York. Charlie propelling him down the deck, dismissing the protests of the outraged captain and his shotgun with a wave of his hand: “Call the League of Nations, if ya don’t like it!”
Then they were hustling down the pier that seemed to be a mile long, its glass sheds looking to him as high and ornate as cathedrals. Redolent with all the smells of the world—ripe bananas and oranges, cocoa and coffee beans, exotic spices and hard metal.
At the end of the pier sat a line of idling trucks, stretching as far as he could see. A streetcar careened around the corner like a runaway team, barely missing them, Charlie jerking Tom’s shoulder back with one hand. More trains twanged and rattled along the elevated line above their heads. The City a blur of motion before him, infinitely bigger, and busier, and faster than even Liverpool had seemed in his few hours there. He hung back involuntarily from this dynamo.
Charlie plucked him up again, literally hauling him into the City like one more errant crate. The black Plymouth sedan sidling up to the curb like a barracuda. The chauffeur a huge, looming man in a blue suit. Charlie introducing him as Neddy Moran, as he crushed Tom’s hand in his own first, wishing him well in America before ushering him into the car that looked as if it might hold the whole of Bohola.
“They’re all waitin’ for ya, Michael an’ Jack,” Charlie was telling him, referring to the brothers, who were already over in Ameri-kay too, and had been gone so long he barely knew them any more than Charlie. “An’ my boy Jimmy, who you have to meet, he’s nearly your age now!”
Then they were being driven through the streets of New York, Tom in the back seat with Charlie—Charlie his brother, who he had never met before this day—beside him. Old enough to be his father, with the hair gone silver around the temples, making him look all the more distinguished. Charlie the judge, in his fine coat and clothes, with his own court clerk to do the driving. It seemed funny to him then, and they laughed about it all the way up to Mrs. Maguire’s boardinghouse on West 103rd Street where everyone was waiting, and for many nights afterward, laughed about it all, unable to help themselves. Not having to say a word, each of them knowing what the other was laughing about, Tommy and Charlie, off to have adventures in America.
Mexico City, 1953
Turning and turning and turning, the plane began its descent, diving down between the snowcapped volcanoes at a dizzying angle. Tom’s eardrums popping under the pressure, his hands clenched around the armrests. Staring out the window at the endless expanse of green parks, and churches, and gracious white buildings that suddenly materialized beneath them.
Charlie’s city now.
He spotted the car, and the slender, solitary figure waiting beside it, before they touched down. By the time they disembarked she was waiting at the bottom of the stairs with the car—a blue, new-model Rolls, as sleek and curved as she was, pulled up on the tarmac beside her like a heeling dog. Waiting for him with her dirty-blond hair tied back and the same wistful smile he remembered. His brother’s wife.
“Hello, Tom,” she said as he came down the stairs, her arms wrapped around herself. Opening up only when he got to her, to pull herself up on him then and plant a quick kiss on his cheek and a hand on his shoulder. Just like that. As if there had never been more, casual and intimate at the same time. The familiar touch and the smell of her jolting him like an electrical shock.
How long had it been? Almost three years . . .
“Hello, Slim,” he said, fighting it, only squeezing her arm in return. Fighting it, fighting it already as he looked at her. Poured now into, of all things, a skin-tight, black matador’s costume with lavish gold embroidery. Like some child’s dress-up outfit, though, it made her seem all the smaller and more vulnerable, and he wanted to grab her up right there, and press her to him.
“I didn’t know it was Halloween,” he said instead.
“I have a lesson with Chu Chu in half an hour.”
“So you’re still doin’ that? ”
“You should meet him.” She turned to saunter back to the car. “He’s really an artist, you know.”
“Oh? Up north we call it an abattoir.”
“Have you ever seen a bullfight, Tom? We’ll have to go while you’re in town,” she said brightly, refusing to rise to the bait.
“No, thank you. I saw enough men cut to pieces in Italy.”
“Don’t mention it to Charlie when you see him, will you? He’s already crazy about it.”
“The Rolls Chu Chu’s?” he asked, barely able to get that ridiculous boy’s name through his teeth.
“No,” she said without elaboration, her voice brittle as a pane of glass. “Last month he was on about my water-skiing instructor. The month before that it was some cliff diver. He’s never stops being suspicious now.”
“He has reason to be.”
She looked down, arms clutched tightly around herself again, and to his surprise he saw her lips trembling, all the defiance slipping away.
“Jesus, Tom, will you give me a break already? You’ve been here two minutes, and you want to pin the scarlet letter on me.”
“Sorry,” he said, and he was, more than he could say, and nearly overwhelmed by the desire to take her in his arms again. “It was more my own self I was chastising.”
“Is it that bad? What you read at home about . . . us?” she asked, facing him again, the wetness visible on her cheeks now, so that he had all he could do to keep from pulling out his handkerchief to wipe it away.
“No, not really.”
“You never could lie, Tom. That’s why you shouldn’t go into politics,” she said, half smiling now, lowering her sunglasses, and he realized that he had not yet seen her eyes.
They were eyes you could fall into. Eyes to draw you across a room full of important and powerful people. Inviting and challenging at the same time, with more than a hint of mischief in them when she was happy. They were colored a startling green, with flecks of gray in the iris, something he knew from staring into them for a long time. She had a small, perfectly straight nose, a wide, generous mouth, and what Life magazine called an aristocrat’s cheekbones—a direct and sensuous face, beautiful in many different lights and from many different angles, a photographer’s dream.
“Did you really play the bull with him, Slim?”
She laughed out loud at that. The sound high and clear as a chime, surprising him in its uninhibited mirth. Just like that she was the Slim he remembered again, fearless and delighted.
“Oh, God. It was my Spanish literature class. They couldn’t understand how a woman could be learning to bullfight. They kept talking about it, sure I couldn’t understand enough to know what they were saying. I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I invited all of them out to watch a lesson. Once we got there, it was just an impulse. I picked up a pair of the horns they train the apprentices with, and then I put them on my head and charged Chu Chu with them, just like I was the bull.”
She put a hand over her face and shook her head, the grin seeping through, the green eyes shining.
“I couldn’t help myself. I know I shouldn’t have, but Jesus, Tommy, you should’ve seen their stupid round faces staring at me. I knew then it was a mistake, it was nothing they could ever understand. Screwing the bullfighter, they could understand, but never the rest of it. So I charged at Chu Chu, and he waved the cape over me, made a perfect veronica, and for some reason it just made me laugh: Chu Chu standing there so serious and elegant, and me with the bull’s horns on, and all their fat, stupid faces staring at us. You see the absurdity in it, don’t you, Tom?”
“I started laughing, and then he started laughing, and then we were shaking with it, we couldn’t stop ourselves. And I looked over at all those grand ladies with all their airs, their mouths hanging open in shock for once without anything to say, the magpies. And I knew then that I’d made everything worse than ever.”
They were both laughing then, too, in spite of themselves.
“A week later a photographer shows up, and I let him take some snaps with me facing a real bull. Thinking then at least they’d see I was serious—that Charlie would see I was serious. The next thing I know it’s in Look, and all my relatives and my mother’s friends are calling me up long-distance, asking me in that very genteel, very southern ladies’ way they have, if I haven’t lost my mind.”
She sighed, shaking her head. The sadness washing over her all at once the way it used to do, too, the way he remembered it, and if she had taken a step closer, he would have grabbed her to him.
“Oh, I’m a scandal, Tom, I know. I can’t seem to help myself anymore.”
“You’re not that, either.”
“Let’s be friends again,” she told him, offering her hand. “I know you’re here to help. God knows he could use it, after everything he’s been through. After everything I’ve put him through. Friends?”
“Like brother and sister,” he said, holding her hand in both of his, giving her what he hoped was a reassuring squeeze.
“Do you think you can help him, Tom? Like you wrote?” she asked, her voice sincere. “It’s just so goddamned sad, the way he sits around that hotel all day. None of it’s really been the same since, well, you know . . .”
“Yes, I know,” he said softly.
Remembering when he’d talked to her last, two years before, once Charlie had made it back to Mexico City on President Alemán’s personal plane. Slim’s voice crackling and frantic over the long-distance line: “He collapsed at the airport, and now he’s locked himself in the library! He won’t come out; he won’t eat anything. What the hell went on up there?”
What had happened? But that was what he was here to find out . . .
“I think I can help him,” he told her, trying to sound official and reassuring. “But he’s got to help himself. He’s got to tell me all of it. No more trying to shield Neddy Moran, or any of his other friends.”
“Ah, you know how he is with friends, Tom.” She shook her head once, and he tried not to notice how the light struck her hair as the chauffeur, a short, muscular, smiling man with the map of the Maya upon his face, came back from the terminal with his bags and they got into the Rolls. She shook her head again.
“He and his goddamned friends.”
Posted October 18, 2013
No text was provided for this review.
Posted December 3, 2013
No text was provided for this review.