Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Badfellas by Tonino Benacquista (Bitter Lemon Press, 2010; 2004 in French)

In the middle of the night an American family move into a villa in Cholong-sur-Avre in Normandy.  To the locals they are something of an exotic novelty – larger than life Fred, an aspiring writer; the conscientious Maggie, who helps out at a local charity; the scheming Warren, who quickly manoeuvres himself into running the school playground; and confident Belle, with her exceptional beauty and good grades.  Only Fred is really Giovanni Manzoni, a violent, former capo of a New Jersey Mafioso family who turned State evidence and is now condemned to spend the rest of his years in a witness protection programme.  Accompanying them is a FBI surveillance team, whose job it is to protect them from the $20 million contract on their head offered by Don Mimino, capo di tutti i capi (the head of the mafia in the US, and now residing in prison thanks to Manzoni’s evidence).  It should be relatively straightforward for Fred and his family to keep their heads down and lead a quiet life, but all of them seem to have a way of attracting and being the centre of attention.  Which is why they have to pack up and move every so often.  The hope is Cholong will be different; that they can turn the villa into a home, but given their record there’s every chance that mafia hitmen will turn up to claim reward for Manzoni’s head.

Badfellas is for the most part an enjoyable comic crime caper.  Benacquista tells the story in an easy, engaging style, with a good dose of black humour.  The characters, whilst mostly caricatures, are well developed, fun and credible - I like, for example, the way that Fred is consistent in his vision of the world, pre and post witness protection programme).  The plot is reasonably predictable, but entertaining, with some nice intertextuality, and I can easily see Badfellas being made into a movie.  There are, however, a few shortcomings that a decent edit could have addressed – the narrative often tells rather than shows, wanders off on unnecessary tangents, and some of the story lacks credibility even for a yarn that asks you to suspend disbelief in general (for example, a man has two arms broken in a house under 24 hour FBI surveillance and yet no-one heard or saw a thing and heaven knows who collected his van; nobody seems to know that a FBI team is occupying the house opposite; a factory polluting the water table is blown-up and miraculously the water runs clean straight away and no-one comes to investigate in a post-9/11 world; a shop is set on fire by someone acting completely out of character and again there is no aftermath).  To some degree this is all minor stuff, but it was enough to slightly sour the read for me, in what was otherwise an amusing way to pass an evening or two.  I expect to see the movie in due course.

1 comment:

Sean Patrick Reardon said...


This is a novel I was planning on reading, so thanks for the great review.