Friday, June 26, 2009

Road to Purgatory by Max Allan Collins (sequel to Road to Perdition)

For more of Friday's Forgotten Books, visit Pattinase.

It seems odd to write of a book as "forgotten" when it's only a few years old, but since Road to Purgatory is already out of print, I guess it applies. But perhaps it's not as much forgotten as it is simply little-known. One hopes that the film version currently in production (directed by the book's author, Max Allan Collins) will bring the story to more people, however, because it just may be the best thing he's ever written.

Michael Satariano, formerly Michael O'Sullivan Jr. — son of John Looney's "Angel of Death" — has become the one-eyed war hero who won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his service in Bataan. He is looking to avenge his father's murder by the famous Chicago gangster Al Capone, now released from prison but sequestering himself from all but his most intimate fellows (including acting Outfit boss, Frank Nitti) due to the advanced debilitating effects of syphilis.

To succeed in doing that, Michael will have to infiltrate the highest echelons of the Outfit, using his apparent Sicilian heritage to his benefit (Papa Satariano, his adoptive father, ran a restaurant that was a favorite hangout of Outfit personnel) — and with the full knowledge of FBI agent Eliot Ness, who has kept Michael's true identity a secret (and even assisted with his eventual adoption).

Part sequel (primarily to Collins's Road to Perdition novelization — the events begin ten years later) and part prequel (four chapters focus on Michael O'Sullivan Sr.'s, role in a political riot in 1922, his antagonistic relationship with Connor Looney, and the birth of Mike's brother, Peter), Road to Purgatory is, above all, a novel of betrayal.

Mike can't seem to keep his promises to anyone but himself — not even the too-good-to-be-true hometown girl he left behind when he went to war — and a good deal of the novel's suspense comes from wondering when Frank Nitti, who all but adopts Mike as a surrogate son, will find out the truth. Mike digs himself deeper with each new relationship, and things really start to fall apart when someone from his pre-war past resurfaces in the present.

The Chicago gangland of the 1920s, '30s, and '40s is author Max Allan Collins' specialty. Eliot Ness, in particular, has appeared in many of his novels, including the author's well-known series starring historical private-eye Nathan Heller. Ness is also featured in his own quartet of novels (Bullet Proof, et al.) and the film Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life, which Collins wrote and directed. So, it's hardly a surprise that Ness plays a sizable role in Road to Purgatory — though, with Prohibition over, he's pretty much stuck fighting that other social pariah, venereal disease, giving him yet another connection to Capone.

Collins' characteristic exhaustive research (he even lets us in on the Outfit's "made man" ceremony) adds considerable depth and atmosphere to this not-so-simple revenge tale, the middle story in a saga named after the three parts of Dante's Divine Comedy. He takes the bold step of making Capone and Nitti sympathetic characters and also manages to add Nitti's death into the narrative in a way that does not contradict his earlier dramatization of it in his Nathan Heller novel, The Million-Dollar Wound — something that was reportedly in his mind while he was writing it. In many ways, Road to Purgatory is a culmination of certain parts of Collins's career, and I look forward to what he does with the film adaptation.


Randy Johnson said...

Loved this novel and am glad to hear of a film.

Craig Clarke said...

I'm excited. Collins always manages to do a lot with a small budget.

Cormac Brown said...

This was my favorite non-Quarry M.A.C. book and it really deserves a turn on the silver screen.

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