The Westies: Inside New York’s Irish Mob by T.J. English is a true story account of the long-standing tradition of organized crime in New York City.
Southie is maybe the more famous of the Irish side of New York organized crime (or good ole Five Points if you want to go back into history a little further), but this is not a story of Southie- it is a tale of Hell’s Kitchen, a neighborhood gentrified into “Clinton” even within the book’s timeframe. If you want to be extra poetic, this book is about the last hurrah of Hell’s Kitchen, although it addresses a relatively narrow scope of the development of the neighborhood itself. The story is a form of time travel and, like so many other books I’ve read about organized crime, a disappointing look into just how unromantic, although totally exciting, organized crime really is.
The author is about as qualified as you can get to write this book.
He extensively covered the Westies’ RICO trial for the Irish Voice, an Irish-American newspaper published in New York, and his storytelling is impressive, even if you only take into account the fact that he manages to keep track of the almost infinite threads that weave together organized crime happenings. Ultimately this tale follows Mickey Featherstone, who used to be a random Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood kid but ended up becoming second-in-command of the Westies gang, and then their biggest betrayer through his testimony against them in a hefty RICO case that was one for the history books.
Honestly, so much happens in this book that it’s a little hard to keep track of.
There are many, many murders.
When it gets towards the end of the book where the final trial is covered, the reader is given a run-down of the facts about the chargers and all of the chargers and investigations covered by the trial, and I found it to be a bit of a miracle that English managed to draw all of this into a cohesive story. The writing lags at time and the book, by nature of context, introduces so many characters that it can be hard to keep them all straight, but it reads like high drama.
Gangsters seem to have a high tendency to behave like stereotypical teenage girls when it comes to a “he said/she said” way of living, except their revenge involves body parts and neighborhood political backlash.
One of the things I found most ironic is that the more successful the gangster, the more they tried to live a normal “legitimate” life. Being rich beyond belief and worthy of envy means a house in the suburbs and kids in good schools. Some things never change and I feel this really illustrates the pathetic economic (and even social) situation of the Irish-American community in New York city in the 1980’s and previously.
When this book first started I thought we would hear much more about Jimmy Coonan, the actual leader of the Westies, but instead he is only observed through Mickey’s eyes.
Over and over Jimmy uses Mickey to meet his needs and the pattern is repeated to nefarious exhaustion among all those in the book that call each other family and dear friends. Honor is important to these guys up until the moment they need to save their own skin. Then betrayal and murder of previous friends is seen as a must, and one by one those who considered “stoolies” to be human scum decide that the fate is not too good personally.
This book was a thrilling read, even down to the wire!
You’ll find it wrap with a summary of what happened to everyone at the time of the book’s writing, which was shortly after the trial.