Friday, April 23, 2010

But This Gangsta Here Is A Smart One

Today's guest contributor is Jonathan Eig, a Chicago writer who hit bestseller lists with his terrific biographies of Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson. Jonathan's next subject is a little closer to home (and by home I mean both Chicago and this site).

Get Capone! The Secret Plot That Captured America's Most Wanted Gangster has picked up a starred review from Publishers Weekly, as well as raves from historians like Ken Burns and Eric Larson, and it is sure to have crime buffs buzzing in the coming weeks and months. Jonathan drew on a treasure trove of new resources for this book, and he uncovers some unheralded heroes in this story, names you probably haven't heard of if your knowledge of the case doesn't go much past Elliot Ness.

Jonathan will be having two big events in the city next week. On Tuesday, April 27 he will be at the Chicago History Museum at 7 PM (you'll need a ticket for that event). And on Wednesday April 28 at 7 PM, he'll be at the Book Cellar (4736 N Lincoln, Chicago). Also be sure to check out his terrific web site, where he has links to many of his original sources. Fascinating stuff.



By Jonathan Eig

When I was in my twenties, I played in a couple of jazz bands. If you happened to live in New Orleans between 1987 and 1990, and if you happened to hear a trio called Don’t Blame Us playing in a coffee shop or poolside at a cocktail party, I think it’s pretty safe to say you wouldn’t remember it today. Nevertheless, despite our lack of recognition, we were almost certainly the finest trumpet-guitar-bass trio comprised of New Orleans Times-Picayune staff members of our era.

I was the trumpeter. As a jazz musician, I had one fatal flaw: I was lousy at making stuff up. I could read music. I could play a melody with reasonably good tone and some semblance of swing. But when it came time to improvise, I always felt like the guy at the wedding who didn’t notice the invitation said black tie. I didn’t belong. The best I could do was stick close to the melody and hope no one noticed, which, of course, isn’t very likely when you’re blowing a trumpet in people’s faces.

I tell you this because I always feel a little bit like a bad jazz trumpeter when I’m comparing notes with some of my friends who write crime fiction, including several of the distinguished members of this Outfit. Maybe I’m jealous because they’re allowed to make things up and I, as a writer of nonfiction, am not. But I think I’m mostly jealous because they’re good at it.

When I wrote my first book, a biography of Lou Gehrig, I decided at one point in the process that I would enliven the story with a few imaginary details. I would reveal some of Gehrig’s thoughts. I would recreate scenes where I thought I knew what had happened, even if I didn’t really know what had happened.

It didn’t work.

Every peck of the keyboard felt like a lie. I went running back to the truth, promising that I would never again stray. And I’m glad I did. It’s a biography, after all. It’s a man’s life. Who the hell am I to make up details?

For my latest book, Get Capone, I started out with an amazing collection of weapons at my disposal. I had in my possession thousands of pages of secret government documents no one had seen in 75 years and no writer had ever used in telling Al Capone’s story. I had Capone family relatives giving me interviews for the first time. I even had the transcripts of some of the interviews Capone gave to the would-be ghostwriter of his autobiography (before the big fellow pulled the plug on the project). I felt like I had the guy nailed.

Still, in one moment of weakness, under the influence of several beers and a friend who writes insanely good crime fiction, I thought about getting creative. My friend’s idea was this: I should invent a character—a journalist much like myself—and insert him in Capone’s story. I saw his point. An invented character could have helped drive the plot. He could have filled in gaps where I didn’t know what Capone was doing. He could have served as a link between the federal agents leading the investigation and the man they were hunting. He could have had a lot of sex and said a lot of witty stuff.
But even under the influence, I knew it wasn’t right for me. Some authors can pull off tricks like these. I can’t.

OK, my friend suggested, then how about opening the book with a short preface that described the dramatic conditions in which you wrote this book?

Well, there were some pretty hairy trips to the library, I admitted.

What about the secret government documents, my friend asked. You’re the only in the world who’s got those. Can’t you make your pursuit of those papers part of the story? Make the reader feel like it’s you hunting Al Capone. Your whole career, your whole life was on the line. You quit a good job at the Wall Street Journal to do this book. What if you failed?

My reply: Who cares?

In the end, this story isn’t mine. It’s Al Capone’s. And if Capone’s story isn’t compelling enough without little old me to juice it up, then I’m doing something very, very wrong.

Eighty years after his fall from power, Capone remains one of the most fascinating figures in American history. Yet most people don’t know the real Capone. They know De Niro’s Capone from The Untouchables.

The real Capone was full of contradictions. He was ravenous for power and yet desperate for public approval. He was a compulsive gambler and chronic philanderer yet also a devoted family man. He felt little guilt about using violence when he had to and yet he wished to be viewed by the public as a legitimate businessman. He spent wildly on fancy cars and clothes yet never amassed great wealth.

He reminded me a little bit of Anthony Soprano, except Capone used female newspaper reporters instead of shrinks to explore his feelings and plead for sympathy.

I once had a dream that I showed up at Capone’s house in Miami to ask him for an interview. He showed me all around the place, took me out to the garage to see his collection of cars, and poured me a tumbler of whiskey. In the dream, it seemed like we hit it off.

I suppose I could have used a scene like that in my book.

But I’d rather play it straight.

Jonathan Eig’s new book is Get Capone: The Secret Plot That Captured America’s Most Wanted Gangster.


UPDATE: A nice piece in today's NYT (with quotes from Jonathan) about Capone's enduring legacy in Chicago.

16 comments:

Dana King said...

Sounds like a fascinating book, and it's a pleasure and relief to see an author who makes a point of playing straight with his readers. I'll keep an eye open for this one.

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