In one of the many anecdotes that make up his new book, Pulitzer-winning newspaper columnist and novelist Jimmy Breslin discusses a column he wrote that resulted in the mistrial of a Chicago gangster. It happens by chance; Breslin bumps into the defendant on the courthouse steps, catches him in a lie, and publishes the lie in the newspaper, and suddenly the jury pool is irrevocably tainted. A few months later, a retired detective contacts Breslin, asking for a repeat performance for an incarcerated Brooklyn mobster. This time, all Breslin has to do is report on a pair of murders that only the detective and the mobster know about. Breslin says he'll do it after the trial, but when it comes time to fact-check the crimes, Breslin can't "verify one bullet hole."
The real-world Mafia of The Good Rat is full of men who'll do anything to get what they want, but are too arrogant and stupid to do it well. Burt Kaplan, the "rat" of the title, is smarter than most, if not by much. But like those few of his associates who survived long enough to be arrested, Burt eventually faces the inevitable: either give up the goods to the police, or spend the rest of his days in jail, clinging to a code of silence rapidly becoming as outdated as the criminals who created it. Even then, he holds his peace. He only turns after the arrest of two crooked cops, since he's convinced his former friends will rat him out if he doesn't get there first. As a star witness at their trial, he delivers testimony that reveals decades of fraud, racketeering, and murder.
Breslin weaves long quotes from Burt's court appearance into Rat, using it as the spine for a collection of legends, apocrypha, and musings about gangster life. It's a casual book, and too often, that casualness feels like randomness. Taken individually, the stories are fascinating, but they never combine into any cohesive whole; Breslin wants to simultaneously eulogize and condemn the criminals he's writing about, and the resulting mash-up is sentimental, sarcastic, and generally formless. It's like getting waylaid by a drunken uncle who can't stop talking about the old days. He's charming to listen to, but never quite coherent enough to be worth remembering.