Almost every character in Marc Songini’s new book has a nickname. There’s the titular killer Joseph “The Animal” Barboza, also known as “No Neck”; James “The Bear” Flemmi (and his more famous brother Stevie “The Rifleman’’); and Henry “The Referee” Tameleo. Other characters have other nicknames, but they are variations on a theme: the names mostly broadcast savagery, strength, or guile.
The characters earn their monikers with all manner of unsavory deeds. There’s a stabbing with a fork, the removal of a human head with a meat saw, the use of a blowtorch on sensitive body parts. These might sound like details from a lurid mobster novel, but Songini’s book is a work of nonfiction. “Boston Mob: The Rise and Fall of the New England Mob and Its Most Notorious Killer’’ is a stark reminder that the tropes and clichés familiar from countless books and movies about organized crime have their origins in bloody realities.
Unlike most of the recent books on the subject area, this one barely touches on Whitey Bulger. Instead Songini recounts the saga of organized crime in Boston and Providence in the 1950s and 1960s with a particular focus on Barboza, whose blood-soaked career becomes emblematic of the period. It’s a vast and complicated underworld crisscrossed with constantly shifting allegiances.
The bulk of his narrative details an extended war between two Irish families and their associates, the Winter Hill Gang and the McLaughlin brothers’ organization. But dozens of other players, from the Italian Mafia to corrupt FBI agents, also enter the fray. At points, the book contains an astonishing density of fatality, with at least one killing per page.
To a large extent, this is simply the nature of the subject. Barboza, for instance, boasted 75 stabbings, 500 beatings, and 20 murders over the course of his illustrious career. But as the bodies accumulate and the war drags on, it sometimes feels as if Songini is slightly too intent on squeezing every gory drop from each slaying.
The relentlessness of the violence does make a point, however. Just as the effect of “Blood Meridian’’ or “The Iliad’’ depends in part on nearly ceaseless carnage, the decision to present readers with an incessant stream of grueling and gruesome incidents is a way of evoking the world of the New England Mafia. But while other treatments of warrior cultures conjure the mythic and poetic, there is nothing romantic in the senseless and sordid world Songini re-creates.
Songini doesn’t hide his disgust with the book’s subjects. He calls Barboza a “grotesque caveman” and notes that one young hoodlum took to criminal work “like a vulture does to a carcass.” Even Barboza’s fellow mobsters seem to despise him; one said that he possessed a “capacity for revenge that makes Caligula look like a benevolent saint.”
Between the shootings, stabbings, beatings, and incarcerations, some glimpses of the structure of the New England Mafia emerge. “Shylocking,” loaning money at ruinous rates with painful penalties for missed payments, was a central income stream. Those who default endure all sorts of torment, including the submersion of the victim’s hand in a tank stocked with hungry piranhas.
Barboza ultimately became a witness for the government and testified against many of his former colleagues. His testimony landed many in prison, but he contradicted and corrected himself so frequently that it became hard to distinguish fact from fiction.
At one point, he lived on a small island under the protective custody of FBI agents. Some of them almost start to like him, and for a moment he seems poised to transform. But it doesn’t take long for his character to reassert itself. He passes the time before the trial by trying to kill a seagull with stones and shoving a cat into a sack and hurling it into the sea. When it wasn’t possible to kill other humans, “The Animal’’ made do with his own kind.Nick Romeo is a journalist and cultural critic.