Underworld man of mystery

Operating in the shadows. Jewish gangster, Arnold Rothstein.

The King of the Jews By Nick Tosches HarperCollins 318pp., $25. 95 Nick Tosches is a strange sort of biographer. Most historians try to create a faithful, psychological portrait of their subject. For Tosches, the people and places are just the beginning. His real-life protagonists are reference points maybe even excuses for free-wheeling, poetic binges through the gutters of modern history. Tosches's book on boxer Sonny Liston, for example, is really a meditation on race and violence in America. His biography of Jerry Lee Lewis takes a long, dark detour laced with Faulkner and biblical verse through religion (and violence) in the old South. It's not that he doesn't represent the real history he does so in great detail. But Tosches takes a novelist's liberty with his subjects, bending them and shaping their significance to fit his own imagination. This book, King of the Jews, might be his most ambitious and ephemeral yet. It claims to be the biography of a Jewish gangster, Arnold Rothstein, in jazz-age New York City. In reality, it's many other things first: a history of ancient Hebrew, a love letter to a lost New York, an erotic fantasy starring Jesus and a long poem about faith, class, money and sex (and, of course, violence). Tosches is a hustler-scholar. He's equally at home in the tough argot of New York criminals as he is in Greek verse and biblical philology. He handles both with amazing facility; it's hard to think of many authors who can cut it on so wide a terrain. He makes Josephus brood like film noir and he makes poets out of petty thieves. His subject choices are always revealing. He once wrote a book called The Unsung Heroes of Rock and Roll, the title of which speaks to his penchant for the hidden, forgotten and maligned. Even his well-known subjects are never the most beloved in their field: he calls Sonny Liston the "anti-Muhammad Ali," angrier and less camera-friendly for white America; Jerry Lee Lewis, likewise, was always wilder and more tortured than the king, Elvis. He finds truth in the figures just below the surface, those who were never totally accepted into American myth. In this book, Rothstein was a man who operated in the shadows, never as public as a don like Bugsy Segal. That, and the obscure details of his murder, clearly attracts Tosches. He introduces Rothstein as "a man marked for death, like us all." This epitaph continues, "He himself was the only god he worshipped, and he was a great and sinful man." Rothstein, like Tosches, was eternally a creature of New York, part of an age when the city "lived and breathed." Though his underworld reach was vast, "He never desired to leave Manhattan," we learn of the criminal-hero. "Heroin travels, he didn't." In this book, unfortunately, the author dwells so heavily in the abstract and symbolic that its protagonist is almost lost. He doesn't get into the real substance of Rothstein's persona and activity until the book is almost over. As a result, some of the more interesting parts, like Rothstein's alleged role in fixing the 1919 World Series, are not given the attention they deserve. He breaks the format into small chapters, mere fragments that often don't even cover an entire page. For most of the book, we learn about Rothstein only from excerpts of primary sources, like court transcripts and letters. It's a vexing collage. Information is meted out in small portions, buried amid all the other products of the author's fertile mind. At the end, it's hard to be sure what you've actually learned about the slain gangster although you have plenty of clues about what he means to Tosches. But, in a way, that fits the modus operandi for the biographer, too. He chooses to leave gaping holes and big questions unanswered. As he writes in the final passage, "It is mystery that must be celebrated, in the holy sense of the word... That is the answer."