Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Trigger Man

The Trigger Man, by Richard Posner
May, 1974  Fawcett Gold Medal

Richard Posner wrote a trio of novels for Gold Medal in the early ‘70s, and this was the last of them. I found it so enjoyable that one of these days I intend to seek out more of Posner’s work. This is a big, meaty novel, filled to the brim with underworld characters and their Machiavellan scheming against one another. It’s also everything The Godfather Part III should have been.

The titular triggerman is Marugo, a middle-aged Mafia hitman known for his professional thoroughness. Stocky and bald, always wearing sunglasses, Marugo sets off the events of the novel by deciding to go to New York and take over one of the five families. He’s sick of always being the underling, and with his seniority in the Mafia and the savagery of his cunning he wants to take what he feels is his due. He pounces on Don Sgambati, now pudgy and soft from his years of easy living as the don of Manhattan. The two were childhood friends in Sicily and fought in the war together. Now Marugo asserts himself within Sgambati’s rubric, whether the sleazy slimeball likes it or not.

Sgambati is in the middle of a cold war with the other four families of New York. They’re all sort of held together by Don Pietro of Long Island, an elderly type who unites the familes as godfather. But the man is old and has handed over most of his decisions to Sabatino, his equally-elderly consiglieri, and Johnny Russo, a young hothead recently appointed to a sort of junior don status for having saved Don Pietro’s life. Yes friends, all of it almost exactly like Michael and Vincent in The Godfather Part III, only better.

Because importantly, Posner understands the turmoil the Mafia was going through in the ‘70s, and this is central to The Trigger Man. Whereas the third Godfather movie digressed into Vatican corruption, this novel explores how the Mafia was losing its hold on crime in the turbulence of the 1970s. Whereas the old Sicilians had previously run the rackets and the drugs and the extortion schemes, now it was going over to the blacks and the Hispanics, who were finally uniting together into their own little Mafias. The dons of the five families are now scrambling to retain their hold on crime, branching out into pornography and other avenues; the last thing they need is a war among themselves.

But a war is exactly what Marugo intends to start. Within a day of his arrival he’s blown off the head of old Don Pietro, shotgunning the dude as he sits in the back seat of his Lincoln. Johnny Russo assumes control of the family and vows bloody vengeance. This all serves to get his girlfriend, Don Pietro’s young niece Mary Adorante, all hot and bothered. Posner delivers a few fairly explicit sex scenes here and there, and Mary, who grew up cloistered in the world of the Mafia, wants to hitch herself to a rising star like Johnny and rule through him. She’s now in college and she’s both smart and sexy, and most every male character is enamored with her. She also enjoys slapping Johnny and getting slapped by him before they have sex.

Meanwhile a cop named Elliot Cohn is working deep undercover, posing as a dirty cop and offering his services to one of the smaller dons of New York. Elliot offers secret intel in exchange for cash, and while he’s already gotten enough to imprison his current target he’s certain that this could provide the lead to a bigger score. In particular he could get an in with Don Pietro through this current target, and from there, posing as a dirty cop, he’d be able to gather enough evidence to bring down all five families. But Don Pietro’s murder throws this out of whack, and besides, Elliot has gone so far undercover that he’s getting the feeling that maybe he wants to join the Mafia for real. 

Sadly our protagonist, as Elliot turns out to be, is a complete dick. We’re informed that he was a juvenile delinquent as a kid in the ‘50s but got turned around by a stern but good-meaning uncle. Elliot became a cop, got married, has two young kids, lives in a nice house out in Long Island. But now he lusts for more – in particular he lusts for Mary Adorante, having gotten a glimpse of her in her bathing suit the day he went to Don Pietro’s estate to meet with the man, not knowing that he’d been assassinated that same day.

Elliot’s potential swaying over to the dark side proves to be a central theme of The Trigger Man, but it’s not a compelling one, as Elliot is not a likable character. In fact you grow to hate him, as the dude has a perfect life, with an understanding and attractive wife, two kids who are capable of doing their own thing and don’t need constant parental guidance, and a nice home. But he starts to get resentful that a life of crime was stolen from him, that he could’ve become a don himself, that a girl like Mary should be his girl, and he becomes more and more obsessed with the lady, who throws him a few interested looks.

Meanwhile Marugo in his relentlessness pushes Sgambati to greater acts of sabotage and murder, wiping out the other dons and their underlings. While it never escalates into a full-scale war, there are a handful of shootouts, from both sides of the conflict. It gradually develops into Johnny Russo and the remnants of Don Pietro’s clan up against Sgambati’s soldiers. Johnny gets the upper hand first, killing off one of Sgambati’s top heroin manufacturers. But Johnny is not only a hothead but also a sadist, and wastes a few precious moments of the ambush to savor his kill. This ends up getting one of his top boys killed and Johnny in further shit with Sabatino the consiglieri, who doubts Johnny’s leadership abilities and wants to follow the dead don’s plans for peace.

Mary, a regular Lady MacBeth, continues to push Johnny, and Posner with his writing skills makes the girl not seem like a manipulative shrew but more as a capable woman trying to make her way in a man’s world. However she’s just as heartless as Johnny. Elliot sees through what he thinks is her false “tough girl” veneer and manages to successfully court her, taking her out to Montauk one day and engaging in another explicit sequence with her in a hotel room. Meanwhile Elliot’s been suspended, the commissioner suspecting – rightly – that he’s become too involved with the Mafia and is goofing off instead of truly working. Elliot could care less and is convinced he’s going to become Mary’s man and take over one of the families.

Posner is a good writer and his characters are three-dimensional. Just when you think Mary might be a nice girl after all, she brags late in the novel about one of Johnny’s hits, which took place at a wedding, several innocent people (including the bride) getting killed. This wedding by the way provides the source for the cover illustration, however it doesn’t play out as the way depicted. I assume the older, heavyset guy in the tux with the gun is supposed to be Sgambati, but it’s his neice who’s getting married; it’s young Johnny and his thugs who pull the gun on her in the firefight. As for Sgambati he also gets his kicks in, like a hit in an Italian restaurant in which all of Johnny’s pals are gunned down as they sit beside him, Sgambati leaving Johnny alive as an insult.

Another thing Posner is good at is taking the narrative in unexpected places. The characters meet fates much different than expected, sometimes not in the most dramatically fulfilling ways. Sgambati for example suffers an 11th hour heart attack that takes him out of commission, and Johnny Russo suffers payback from Sabatino himself, who is sickened by the wedding hit. (This is another memorably sleazy scene, with the consiglieri gunning Johnny down while he’s getting a blowjob from Mary!) Speaking of Mary this also serves to cow her, effectively destroying her plans of becoming a Godmother. And meanwhile she’s spurned Elliot’s advances, telling him their afternoon sex was just a moment’s fancy. Elliot really gets the message when Johnny Russo, shortly before his death, beats the shit out of him.

The problem with The Trigger Man is that it’s too long, too wordy. It’s very much in the Burt Hirschfeld mode, with almost the same effected sort of narrative style and over-description. Practically every scene begins with elaborate scene-setting, which while bringing the locale to life (this is sleazy ‘70s New York in all its glory, fully captured) also serves to slow down the pace and make the novel seem a lot longer than it really is. But what makes it even worse is the quick denoument, as if Posner realized he was hitting his word count and decided to barrel through a finale, pulling some tension out of nowhere to make it all more dramatic.

In a prefigure of the cheesy, copout finale of the later novel Hellfire, we get this lame sort of climax in which Elliot, suddenly stupid, figures Marugo is going to make a hit on a massage parlor. In one of the novel’s many subplots we’ve seen the assassin dealing with one of Sgambati’s many ventures, a Times Square massage parlor with a gorgeous masseuse being groomed for porno stardom. In another sleazy action scene midway through Marugo blew away a Sgambati flunkie who had just raped the girl and was in the process of beating her. Now Marugo will likely kill the girl, as she has seen his face – a central mystery faced by all the characters in the novel is who exactly is planning all these attacks for the otherwise-ineffective Don Sgambati.

But instead of going to the massage parlor, Marugo heads to Elliot’s house and kidnaps his wife and kids. The same wife and kids Elliot has turned his back on, by the way, having told his wife he wants a separation and moving out. Now we’re to believe it that Elliot is burning and yearning to go save them. (To his credit, Posner has Elliot’s boss snidely make fun at him for the very same thing!) But it all culminates with a lame action scene as Elliot rushes back to his home to talk Marugo out of killing his family, and the treacle gets even thicker when the last page has Elliot reunited with his wife and kids and telling his wife he was stupid to leave her and he wants to come back, and oh by the way I screwed a hot Mafia princess but all that’s in the past, honey.

And that’s that. The majority of The Trigger Man is great, with real novel stuff, deep characters and their intricate thoughts and schemes and awesome topical details of gritty ‘70s New York. Posner also has a gift for memorable scenes, like a hit that goes down in a zoo. And as mentioned he’s not afraid to sleaze it up once in a while, with lots of sleazy massage parlor and porno movie material. He also doles out plentiful gore in the action scenes, with copious descriptions of exploding faces and brains and even in one memorable part a pumping heart visible through a just-blasted-open chest cavity.

The problem is, this stuff is so good that eventually it overwhelms the novel, with too many characters and too many subplots, so that the various threads are almost perfunctorily wrapped up in an unsatisfying finale. But don’t get me wrong, because The Triggerman is still a recommended read, and definitely has me wanting to read more of Posner’s work…and you wish Puzo and Coppola had maybe read it before they began work on the last Godfather movie.

1 comment:

Kurt said...

I just picked up The Mafia Man by Richard Posner yesterday. Looking forward to reading it.