Book Review: 'Young Al Capone' in New York

Chicagoans are still taunted in far-flung locales with a mock trigger pulling and the words, “Al Capone — bang, bang, shoot-’em-up,” wrote Jeff Johnson in his review of a new biography about the famous gangster in the Chicago Sun-Times.

But we’re the Second City when it comes to the notorious underworld boss known as “Scarface.” He’s a product of the hardscrabble streets of Brooklyn. In Young Al Capone: The Untold Story of Scarface in New York, 1899-1925 , Staten Island’s William and John Balsamo explore those formative years, which ended in a beef with the Irish White Hand gang that sent the hotheaded young Italian mob enforcer scurrying to safety in the Windy City.

The Balsamo brothers, whose great-uncle has been described as “the first godfather of Brooklyn,” claim to have researched their subject for a quarter century. Either they got off on a tangent, though, or were disregarding the advice of higher-ups to make the book about Capone for marketability, rather than a more general tale of the early 20th century New York mob. Scarface disappears for key sections of Young Al Capone, and the book keeps its New York state of mind even after Capone lams it.

The New York-centric media are preoccupied with the Big Apple in every area from Ken Burns’ “Baseball” to the Tonys, but please, give Chicago its due for its bad guys! After “Young Al Capone” arrives here and sets up headquarters at the Four Deuces club on South Wabash, soon to go West like Horatio Alger to Cicero when a reform mayor takes over Chicago, the saga gets murky, Even the 1920 hit on Mafia kingpin Big Jim Colosimo, in which Capone played a key role, is seen through the eyes of New York torpedo Frankie Yale.

Much of the mob historians’ research was conducted on the Brooklyn docks, but the book suffers for its gap in the early Chicago years. And that mob financial wiz is Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik, not Cuzik.

Chicagoans might ask why Capone is still in the public consciousness some 80 years after his heyday, and the reasons are twofold: first, the drama and romance of underworld lore are personified in this charismatic gangster, and second, “the Chicago way” is not so different today from when Scarface ruled the roost.

The fun-loving, whimsical thug as portrayed by Stephen Graham in HBO’s hit drama “Boardwalk Empire” is a far cry from the Capone who emerges in the Balsamos’ book. This Capone is an extremely serious, ambitious mob climber who loves opera and food and considers ultraviolence a necessary part of the mob lifestyle. And woe be unto anyone unlucky enough to mutter “Scarface” within his hearing range.

What’s revealed about Capone’s personality comes primarily through imaginary conversations between Al and his family, pals, bosses and crew. They usually take place right before major events: his first day as a shoeshine boy, his killing of a belligerent drunk, the day a protective brother tried to slit his jugular and gave him his nickname, his father’s funeral. The Balsamos save the best for last, when Capone returns to New York and meticulously executes the Christmas Day barroom massacre of Peg Leg Lonergan and several of his White Hand underlings.