Book Review : Dylan Struzan - A Bloody Business (2019)
Prohibition is remembered rather fondly by people of my age. It was the era where the government tried to take our booze away while valiant, well-dressed outlaws fought to keep us drunk. Our collective memory is heavily romanticized. Prohibition is well-documented by historians, which means there’s an official version of it. But official versions aren’t any fun. Individual stories from the trenches, told by people who lived it (preferably over a beer) are the real thing. The next best option I guess is Dylan Struzan’s fictionalized account of the prohibition A Bloody Business, which was told to her by a gentleman who was there.
The story of A Bloody Business is probably familiar to you. It tells the tale of the rise to power of Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, Lucky Luciano and others. The outlaw kings of the prohibition. But the difference with other prohibition novels comes from the source: Vincent “Jimmy Blue Eyes” Alo, who gave over 50 hours of testimony to Dylan Struzan under the condition that she would not publish it of his living. Alo was, among other things, immortalized as Johnny Ola in the Godfather movies. Mr. Alo passed away in 2001 and close to two decades later, we have brand new “dark history” of the prohibition to look into.
This is a 640 pages long novel. I don’t know any book of that length without its ups and downs and A Bloody Business is no different. It has amazing character moments, which give insight on historical figures and color your reading along the way. For example, A Bloody Business begins with Meyer Lansky and the Jewish mob’s involvement in the prohibition. Dylan Struzan * portrays Lansky as this hyper rational Robin Hood-like figure who not only takes care of the people he runs with, but sees that they’re respected. Sure, it’s romanticized, but it’s romanticized in a way people do when they remember someone they admired.
So, I chose my camp early and decided to read A Bloody Business through the lens of Meyer Lansky’s arc, because it was clear from the get-go why I should root for him. There are many character moments like this in the novel. Another one I really liked involved Al Capone. He’s a bit of an outsider in A Bloody Business, since it focuses mostly on the New York mafia and Capone rules over Chicago. The other characters have a polite fear of him. They’re inherently sympathetic to his cause, yet find him wild and unpredictable like you would find your knife-wielding wayward cousin. Not your typical Al Capone depiction. It felt new and original.
These character moments are straight up good writing, but are few and far between given the sheer bulk of the novel. Here’s the major problem I had with A Bloody Business: I was almost too well-informed about the prohibition era. I know how it ended and what the consequences were for its main protagonists. So, how many mobster meetings and arguments were exactly necessary to establish the stakes here? There’s way too many of these in A Bloody Business. Once Dylan Struzan established the who’s who and what the stakes were, the winding conversations became akin to reading minutes from a bitchy municipal assembly. A Bloody Business takes you beat-by-beat through prohibition while it doesn’t need to.
Don’t get me wrong: A Bloody Business is not a bad novel. It sheds a new light on historical characters who are dogged by official history and conventional wisdom. It takes you behind closed doors in the unique way the amped up memories of someone who was there would. But it doesn’t quite add up to more than the sums of its parts. It suffers from too many pacing issues. Repetitions that didn’t need be to convey the importance of certain moments. Details that might be historically accurate, but without emotional value for a reader like me who's doesn’t have a visceral attachment to the era. But I wasn’t expecting perfection from a 640 pages first novel.
Prohibition turns 100 years old in 2019. If you’re into historical novels or just into Ellroy-esque ** retellings of the past, you might get a kick out of this one.
* So, by default Alo?
** Well, it’s not LIKE a James Ellroy novel. It doesn’t have any of the bad faith and cheeky humor, but the process is similar.