A Tale of the RI Mafia Matched to Classic Literature

“Gang wars, like all wars, are largely economic,” writes Don Winslow in his latest novel, “City on Fire.” “Guys didn’t come into this thing to join the military, they came in to make the money, and if you take the money away, you take the soldiers away.” That “thing” is Rhode Island’s organized crime, where rival Italian and Irish crime families fight for control of the trucks and docks that keep things moving in the state.

In the best classics-based novels, older myths or legends illuminate modern darkness. So Kamila Shamsie in “Home Fires” transformed “Antigone” into the contested space populated by immigrants in the UK and how the “war on terror” divided families; Michael Hughes’ ‘Country’ turned ‘The Iliad’ into an account of the Troubles. Winslow, in the first book of a planned trilogy, brings his sharp acting skills to Virgil’s “The Aeneid” and transforms the events of Troy and the founding of Rome into a gripping gangster tale. It makes me wonder why I never saw the Trojan War as the obvious fight between rival criminal gangs.

“The Aeneid”, written by Virgil at the end of the first century BC, is about Aeneas, son of the goddess Venus and the Trojan prince Anchises. After the fall of Troy, Aeneas endures a long journey and a series of struggles that ultimately lead to the founding of Rome. The apparent origin of the Trojan War is the oath that Menelaus compelled his rivals to swear to the inviolability of his marriage to Helen. When Paris embarks with her, the men have a duty to go to Troy to bring her back.

“City on Fire” opened in August 1986 at Pasco Ferri’s clambake on Goshen Beach. It’s an annual multi-day picnic to celebrate the peace brokered between Ferri’s Italians and John Murphy’s Irish mobs. Danny Ryan is Murphy’s son-in-law; readers see many events in the novel from his point of view.

The book opens with dangerous beauty: “Danny Ryan watches the woman rise out of the water like a vision emerging from his sea dreams. Except she’s real and she’s going to cause trouble. The beautiful Pam rose from the tide escorted by Paulie Moretti, a guy made in the family of Ferri. During the picnic, Liam Murphy, Danny’s brother-in-law, gets his hands on Pam and a conflict erupts.

Danny is Aeneas, Liam is Paris and enraged Paulie Menelaus. Part of the joy of reading Winslow’s fast-paced, assaulted account is identifying the Irish and Italian mafia characters that fit Agamemnon, Achilles, Patroclus, Apollo – the Italians – and Helen, Hector, Priam, Venus (Aphrodite) and Cassandra among the condemned Irish. Their tragic flaws lead to broken families and bitter loss on both sides.

Winslow wrote several best-selling novels, earning critical acclaim and appreciation from her peers. He writes in various subgenres of literary thrillers, including works called “black surfing”, and his “border novels” explore how man-made borders lead to violence. In “City of Fire,” he returns to his New England roots for this new classic that he says took him decades to write.

Winslow is a master of rhythm. The action and erotic sequences get the adrenaline pumping, while the tender scenes are languid and warm. It shades the relationship between men and women in black tones. Tough guys don’t always get what they want. Black women are mean and smart and contrast their advantages with how men’s low assumptions about women make them weak.

Madeleine is the Vegas showgirl who gave birth to Danny after a short affair with Marty Ryan, and left baby Danny with Marty to raise. In addition to her stunning looks and liveliness, Madeleine has a keen talent for both financial investments and men who read. Born into a world of “rental houses with revolving doors and caravans with five children”, she escapes poverty by studying powerful men and their behaviors in order to benefit from this knowledge.

Pam does not appear as the villain behind the throne (as some scholars have seen Helen), but rather as a woman who makes the wrong choice of boyfriend. Her role here is a woman who misjudged the benefits of dating a powerful man and then compounded the mistake by falling in love with another. Pam serves as a mirror: whether this surface distorts the truth men seek is a question that underlies much of the novel.

Winslow has been praised for the way his previous crime novels tackle social issues. He questioned the way borders work between us, that we are weak at the border when we build insurmountable walls to consolidate them. One of the things that underpins Winslow’s novel is that it’s not just the faults of individuals that cause these men to fail. But here, rigid definitions of who is “our stuff” creates fatal weaknesses between them. Refusal to think outside of their narrow notions of masculinity and honor hampers them. The armor they make of their identity fails to cover their Achilles heels.

CITY ON FIRE

By Don Winslow

HarperCollins, 368 pages, $28.99

Lorraine Berry is a writer and critic from Oregon. She tweets @BerryFLW.

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