Sunday, June 21, 2009

Casino Moon by Peter Blauner (Hard Case Crime)

Author Peter Blauner's second novel Casino Moon is a bit of an anomaly in the Hard Case Crime line. Not only does it exceed 320 pages (only two others of the more than 50 novels in the line, The Last Match and Fifty-to-One, have gone that far over the 250-page median), but it is also barely 15 years old, having been first published in 1994 — after Slow Motion Riot won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Novel but before Blauner's breakout thriller The Intruder became a national bestseller.

But even the author's original intentions seem to make it a perfect choice for reprinting in this way. As Blauner himself wryly states on his website, "[Casino Moon] was meant to be sort of a quick down-and-dirty pulp novel about a young man trying to get away from his mobbed-up family. So naturally, it ended up taking four years and dozens of painstaking rewrites to get it in shape."

Anthony Russo has always known the mob. After his real father, Mike Dillon, was murdered, Vincent Russo raised him as his own. In fact, the only thing stopping Anthony from being "made" is his lack of Sicilian blood — well, that and the fact that Anthony hasn't killed anybody yet, despite Vincent continual attempts to make it easy for him. What Anthony really wants, though, is a chance to make his money legitimately, and funding former champion boxer Elijah Barton's comeback, against current champ Terrence Mulvehill, is the opportunity he's been looking for.

But, like Michael Corleone says in Godfather III, "Just when I thought I was out ... they pull me back in." (What? You expect me to review a mafia novel and not make a Godfather reference? Even Blauner does it, naming a restaurant "Andolini's" — Andolini was the Corleone family's original surname before Ellis Island officials changed it.)

Anthony finds it difficult to actually do anything on his own. Among other things, Anthony owes people money and wants to support his wife and kids, but his wife's uncle Teddy, the capodecine, always takes half of any money made by his underlings. Other people want their piece of the pie, as well, including his girlfriend Rosemary (who has her own daughter to support).

As he is floundering, Anthony gets a view of the other side from Mulvehill's promoter Frank Diamond, who manages to get a portion of every fee possible through having his son be the manager, renting his own space out for training, and other entirely legal (though not necessarily ethical) means. Sitting in Diamond's $5,000-a-night suite, Anthony notices, "a gold jacuzzi over by the window ... and a bar stocked with 150-year-old bottles of wine. Still, five thousand a night seemed a little steep.... But it must be worth it, I figured, just to know that the guy downstairs only had 75-year-old wine." He soon realizes, "Growing up around wiseguys was the best preparation I could have had for the fight game."

Casino Moon is unnecessarily melodramatic at times (does Teddy really need to have a son who killed himself, a mentally retarded daughter, a wife addicted to downers, an eating disorder, and prostate cancer all in one book?), especially with the constant parent–child issues present and an ending seemingly designed to make men cry. Also, Blauner jumps from first person for Anthony's story to third person for everyone else, making it a little confusing in the beginning until I got used to the style.

But despite these complaints, Blauner kept the pages turning, if sometimes filling them with a little too much detail. His characters are richly drawn, and I can still see their faces clearly in my mind. I really felt Anthony's tension at all the hands pulling him in different directions — and his struggles between his wife and his mistress make a strong case for fidelity. (One lesson: don't piss off a woman with no dignity left to lose.) Casino Moon is by no means a perfect novel, but Blauner tries hard and succeeds for the most part, particularly in making the mafia human.

Nitpicker's Note: One statement near the end of chapter 10, referring to a little girl's "toothless four-year-old smile," took me right out of the story. A one-year-old has most of her teeth already, and they don't generally start to fall out until around age 6. Probably Blauner simply wasn't a parent yet when he wrote Casino Moon, but this kind of fact is easy to research: just look at somebody else's kids. This also makes the attempts at parental characterization — "I've got two of my own. I'd kill for them" — ring false.

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