Book Review: 'Lowdown'

Feb 14, 2019

It’s cold, still dark early, a time, as the cliché has it, to curl up with a good book. And I’ve got one for you, if “good” means almost non-stop reading because you care about the main characters, even if they’re not good. And they’re not, in Anthony Schneider’s new novel, “Lowdown.” They’re Mafia, but as “The Godfather” and Tony Soprano proved, complex goodfellas can fascinate.

In “Lowdown” Schneider delivers an absorbing tale about a guy whose crime family has real-life connections to the Gambinos and John Gotti. Yes, there’s violence, but there’s also a love story here, that’s not only believable but heartwarming. What’s more, Schneider shows he can not only do blunt action prose, but such lyrically evocative descriptions – medieval houses and streets, people, wine and food – that he could easily be accused of being a shill for Sicily’s tourist industry.

The narrative proceeds as alternating time zone chapters, beginning in 2006 in the present tense. The going back and forth, past and present. Cool, reserved 58-year-old Jimmy Piccini is about to be released from federal prison. The story then moves back 25 years, using the past tense, to tell why he was sent away and how he has become legendary for adhering to omerta, the Mafia code of silence. Jimmy vaguely remembers how it was decades earlier – a walk on a beach, steak dinner, sunlight. What he tries not to think about is Milena Cossutta, the beautiful, smart and sexy wife of a hot-head mob lieutenant.

Their deep and abiding affair was a long time ago. When he was a Mafia rookie making collections and running errands for the Mob in Brooklyn. When Ed Koch was mayor. When the country botched the rescue of American hostages in Iran. When “Gentle Don” Angelo Bruno was shot in the head in Philly by his own consigliere. When Bruce Springsteen’s album “The River” came out. It was also when young Jimmy, being groomed to be a Mafia captain, was told to arrange the murder of the head of a rival crime family. Little did he know that a snitch would finger him. And that he would spend half his life locked up for not even pulling the trigger.

Though Jimmy toys with redemption over revenge, he never was or will be an innocent. He helped expedite what the family did – narcotics and vicious killings, not to mention infiltrating businesses involving banks and credit unions, shell companies, corrupt politicians – complicated covers that leave no money trail.

Schneider’s achievement is to exploit and somewhat romanticize our vicarious attraction to such perverse purveyors of The American Dream. Think Jay Gatsby. Of course, we condemn the savagely criminal Cosa Nostra – which means Our Thing. We say it’s not Our Thing. But “Lowdown,” which sizzles with insider savvy, suggests that we know that the crime syndicates may still be running much of the country. Something to think about as you zip through to the end and maybe start wondering who should be cast to play Jimmy.