3 out of 5
The mob surely can play a part in pulp fiction, and especially when you get to the lower rungs with various ne’er-do-wells and never-wills, the archetypes you start dealing with are very much in line with the crooks and thieves that are likely to populate dime store paperbacks. Certainly the rackets the mob might get involved in – such as boxing – have crossover with get-money-quick schemes that have fueled any given pulp tale. But those are points of intersection; there also, of course, is the kind of fiction that makes for The Godfather, or Sopranos; stories that are definitely about the mob, and about that “family” and lifestyle.
Peter Blauner’s Casino Moon posits a setup that should allow us to mix and match between those scenes: Anthony Russo’s father was mobbed up, and so his adoptive father – Vic, also a made dude – wants nothing more than for his son to join the ranks. Anthony seems to make some of the right moves, getting involved in potentially lucrative businesses like architecture, but he’s never willing to commit; as Blauner steps between different points of view, Anthony’s is the only one told in first person, and so he gets to make it clear: he wants free of the mob, and of those obligations. He’s the pulp narrator, with his “one last job” to set up his family backing an aging fighter against the current champ, and the roadblocks and speedbumps along the way mimic the dames and disasters of that genre. But then we also hear from Vic, and Teddy, the local family boss, and the cop mixed up in their business, “Pigfucker,” and the wives and girlfriends unlucky enough to be connected to all these spiraling-downward types; this part of the book is a low-rent mob tale, with everyone out for themselves and squabbling and loving in equal measure. For every pulp chapter in which something goes wrong for Anthony, there’s a mob chapter that mirrors it, all of that bad news essentially connected, but still feeling like two separate worlds. While I’d say this is very purposeful – there’s a clever theme here of everyone trying to get-in or get-out of various businesses – it causes Blauner to adopt a voice that’s always a little outside of matters, preventing anyone’s plight from ever feeling too immediate. The general tone wavers as well, occasionally sympathetic and with some sharp lines that immediately humanize someone, or weight a scenario, but then the next sentences are cracking wise and making everyone look pretty dumb. Both of these tones are welcome, and can absolutely be bound together, but it’s the entire half-in / half-out approach of Casino Moon that makes it less effective than it is engaging.
The reality of Russo’s world is certainly well conceived, and Blauner does a good job of dodging out of the way of what initially seem like all too predictable setups, and giving us something a bit twisted in its stead. But if there’d been a way to dive a bit deeper into either the pulp or mob side of things, or choose a tone that tied them closer together, Casino Moon could’ve been a much more enduring story.