Now, there weren’t many details to this tale, my family has never been afraid of a little exaggeration in the service of a good story, and I had just recently published The Family Corleone, my prequel to Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, so I don’t know how much of what I was told is true and how much might have been embellished to appeal to the writer in the family. One of my cousins, however, said he had long ago heard the same story about my grandfather, so I suspect there are at least some kernels of truth in the overall narrative. But whether or not it’s all true is not the point. What stuck with me was the memory of my grandfather sitting quietly in a corner in contrast to the image of him in his youth as a tough guy with a gun tucked into his belt, in constant trouble with the law.
Before writing The Family Corleone I did a lot of research on the history of organized crime, especially around the era of prohibition. I had already read all of Mario Puzo’s novels, including of course The Godfather, and I realized at one point that Puzo must have done the same research, because I kept coming across material that had made its way, usually in altered form, into one of his novels or screenplays. Puzo was brilliant at creating fictional characters and incidents based on gangland lore. I had already decided I wanted to alter that process by writing about the real-life characters Puzo had fictionalized, and telling my story through the eyes of an invented character, in the manner of Doctorow in Billy Bathgate or Kennedy in Legs. (Or, for that matter, in a manner similar to the writers of Boardwalk Empire, a show that is based on some of the same characters in Toughs, only a few years earlier in their criminal careers.) The figure of most interest to me was Vince Coll, a twenty-three year old Irish kid who took on the whole country, both the law and the underworld, in his battles with Dutch Schultz, Lucky Luciano, Owen Madden, and most of the other significant New York gangsters.
Coll interested me for a number of reasons, certainly his youth and bravado and because he was an Irish kid running a gang made up mostly of Italians. But beyond that, it was the murderous incident that brought him briefly to national fame and made him the FBI’s Number One Most Wanted criminal. In a gun battle that resulted from a botched assassination attempt on East 107th Street in New York, several children were shot, including five-year old Michael Vengelli, who died as result of his wounds. After this incident, Coll was tagged “Mad Dog Coll,” and the city’s police commissioner, Edward P. Mulrooney, put out a shoot to kill order on him. The shootings and the resulting media uproar reminded me of the news stories we see today on a regular basis coming out of Chicago—stories of children caught in the crossfire of gangland turf wars. The similarities are striking.
In the depression-era thirties, as in the current recession, young men reared in poverty were fighting for a piece of the billions to be made in illegal enterprises. But even more than those similarities, it was the violence itself that interested me: how to understand it, what to make of it, and, by corollary, how to come to terms with a world that is violent by nature. Throughout my writing career, that’s the subject that has interested me the most. The violence everywhere in the world. The consequences of it. The men and women that deal it out, and their divided hearts, simultaneously capable of tenderness and savagery.
Still, I wasn’t able to get a start on this new project, this post-Family Corleone novel, until I heard that story about my grandfather. He was a gentle man: you could see it in his eyes. Yet if the stories were true, he had also once been a violent man. When I began wrestling with that conflict, Toughs started taking shape around him and he morphed into my central character: Loretto Jones, a young man abandoned into poverty, who grows up in the Bronx among some of the most infamous criminals of our time. What choices will this young man make and what will be their consequences? That’s the story of Toughs. It’s about Loretto Jones and Vince Coll, about the women they love in the depression-era thirties, and the extraordinary tumult of their world.