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The Knave of Boston and Other Ambiguous Massachusetts Characters.

The Knave of Boston and Other Ambiguous Massachusetts Characters.

Francis Russell. Quinlan Press. $17.95. Years ago an interviewer induced momentary speech-lessness (not my usual affliction) by suggesting that Boston itself is a character in my books, an insight so commanding that of course I stole it at once, using it to great effect on subsequent book tours (without, of course, crediting the source--this was before we were all joebidened into prim footnoting of others' better lines).

The passage of time tends to add nuance to such pilferings; the flaw in the seer's question was its neglect of the manifest fact that Boston, a state of mind that exists geographically east of Worcester, south of Lowell, and north of Plymouth, is a character in almost every book-- admittedly fictional or insistently factual--that is written about the people who consider themselves to be "from Boston." It is the strangest damned place. All you have to do is grow up in it, and for the rest of your life, everywhere in the world (that I have been, at least), all you have to do is ask for "Marlboro in the hard pack," and no one needs to see your passport.

J.P. Marquand was at home in Boston, though he lived in the city chiefly when he was seeing his lawyers about one of his divorces. Edwin O'Connor was from Boston, notwithstanding the fact that he was born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island (and died far too soon--in Boston of course). John Updike writes a good deal about the Pennsylvania of his youth, and lives on the North Shore today, but John Updike is from Boston as surely as Carlton Fisk, of Claremont, New Hampshire and the White Sox of Chicago, is a true Bostonian. Robert B. Parker grew up in the Fall River-New Bedford area, and he lives in effete Cambridge now, hard by Camelot High (as we call the John F. Kennedy Institute of Politics at Harvard), but Robert B. Parker is from Boston. Hell, Henry James spent most of his life "across the water," as my grandfather used to say, but he was always from Boston, and it showed in what he wrote.

And so is Francis Russell, whose reputation was deservedly made by his painstaking and unsparing research into the Sacco-Vanzetti case (he entered the lists convinced that the two were innocent, and emerged from them convinced that they did commit the robbery, and did murder the guard--for which declarations he took considerable abuse). What he has done here is to collect 12 magazine pieces about Bostonians that variously appeared in such publications as American Heritage and Horizon. As is by no means always the case when ephemeral journalism is captured in hard bindings, the gleanings gain critical mass, melting down into a coherent story about the city-- really a collection of villages--that glows with its own energy.

As Doris Kearns Goodwin's The Kennedys and the Fitzgeralds so brilliantly demonstrated last spring, there is abundant grist for the trover's craft in the stories of Boston politics. The oral tradition has roughly--very roughly-- preserved the legends of Boston's rogues, scoundrels, and scapegraces, but the people who know the wonderful stories are dying off these days. Francis Russell, like Goodwin, has set down the hard facts as he found them and done it in his own hand: stories of James Michael Curley and John F. Fitzgerald (with Toodles, of course); Calvin Coolidge and John Boyle O'Reilly (whose reach as a poet exceeded his grasp), and Mattapan Macky, an Italian gypsy with blonde hair, carrying the Mayflower name of Tilly. Politics, thuggery, sex and religion, ethics, and fixing the cases: Russell gathered most of the ruling passions of Boston in these pieces, and he's right to be proud of them. "Boston," he writes at the end of this book, "the city of all American cities that is a state of mind, is the cement that holds them together."

Well, he's probably mistaken. But then most of us think the Red Sox will win the World Series next year. It's all right to be wrong in Boston, so long as you're having some fun.
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Author:Higgins, George V.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1988
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