“Gang wars, like any wars, are largely economic,” Don Winslow writes in his latest novel, “City on Fire.” “Guys didn’t get into this thing to join the army, they got in to make money, and if you take the money away, you take the soldiers away.” This “thing” is Rhode Island organized crime, where rival Italian and Irish crime families wrestle for control of the trucks and docks that keep things moving in the state.
In the best classics-based novels, the older myths or legends shed light on modern darknesses. Thus Kamila Shamsie in “Home Fires” turned “Antigone” into the contested space populated by immigrants in the UK and how the “war on terror” divided families; “Country” by Michael Hughes transformed “The Iliad” into a narrative of The Troubles. Winslow, in the first book of a planned trilogy, brings his sharp interpretive skills to Virgil’s “Aeneid,” and makes the events at Troy and the founding of Rome into a riveting gangster tale. He makes me wonder why I had never before seen the Trojan War as the obvious fight between rival criminal gangs.
“The Aeneid,” written by Virgil in the late first century BCE, tells of Aeneas, son of the goddess Venus and the Trojan prince Anchises. After the fall of Troy, Aeneas endures a long voyage and a series of struggles that eventually lead to the founding of Rome. The ostensible origin of the Trojan War is the oath Menelaus compels his rivals to swear to the inviolability of his marriage to Helen. When Paris sails away with her, the men are duty-bound to go to Troy to bring her back.
“City on Fire” opens in August 1986 at Pasco Ferri’s clambake on Goshen Beach. It’s an annual multiday picnic to celebrate the negotiated peace between Ferri’s Italians and John Murphy’s Irish mobs. Danny Ryan is Murphy’s son-in-law; readers see many of the novel’s events from his point of view.
The book opens with dangerous beauty: “Danny Ryan watches the woman come out of the water like a vision emerging from his dreams of the sea. Except she’s real and she’s going to be trouble.” The beautiful Pam has risen from the tide escorted by Paulie Moretti, a made guy in Ferri’s family. During the picnic, Liam Murphy — Danny’s brother-in-law — puts hands on Pam, and conflict erupts.
Danny is Aeneas, Liam is Paris, and Paulie the enraged Menelaus. Part of the joy of reading Winslow’s fast-paced and mobbed-up retelling is identifying which Irish and Italian mob characters match up with Agamemnon, Achilles, Patroclus, Apollo — the Italians — and Helen, Hector, Priam, Venus (Aphrodite), and Cassandra among the doomed Irish. Their tragic flaws lead to broken families and bitter losses on both sides.
Winslow has written multiple best-selling novels, winning critical acclaim and appreciation from his peers. He writes in various subgenres of literary thrillers, including works that have been called “surf noir,” and his “border novels” explore how human-made boundaries lead to violence. In “City of Fire,” he returns to his New England roots for this new classic he says took him decades to write.
Winslow is a master of pacing. Action and erotic sequences fire the adrenaline, while tender scenes feel languid and warm. He shades the relationship between men and women in noir tones. Tough guys don’t always get their way. Noir women are wicked smart, and press their advantages against how men’s low assumptions of women make them weak.
Madeleine is the Vegas showgirl who gave birth to Danny after a short affair with Marty Ryan, and who left the infant Danny with Marty to raise. In addition to her stunning looks and vivacity, Madeleine possesses a keen talent for both financial investments and reading men. Born into a world of “revolving-door rental homes and trailers with five kids,” she escapes poverty by studying powerful men and their behaviors in order to benefit from that knowledge.
Pam emerges not as the villain behind the throne (as some scholars have seen Helen), but rather a woman who makes a bad choice of boyfriend. Her role here is a woman who misjudged the benefits of dating a powerful man and then compounds the mistake by falling in love with another one. Pam serves as a mirror: Whether that surface distorts the truth men seek is a question that underlies much of the novel.
Winslow has been lauded for the ways that his previous crime novels confront social issues. He has interrogated the ways that borders work between us, that we’re weak at the border when we build insurmountable walls to shore them up. One that runs under the surface of Winslow’s novel is that it’s not just the faults of individuals that cause these men to fail. But here, rigid definitions of who gets to belong in “our thing” create fatal weaknesses among them. The refusal to think outside their constricted notions of masculinity and honor hobbles them. The armor they make of their identity fails to cover their Achilles’ heels.
CITY ON FIRE
By Don Winslow
HarperCollins, 368 pages, $28.99
Lorraine Berry is a writer and reviewer from Oregon. She tweets @BerryFLW.