Ever since I moved to New England in 1988, I've been more than a little fascinated by the stories about Boston's notorious mob boss Whitey Bulger. Over the years I've seen enough “mob” movies and read enough books to find the whole business of organized crime pretty interesting. Naturally, in my mind families like the Corleones and the Sopranos, while tantalizing to think about, were highly dramatized. Then, while working in Boston, I met a guy named Mick who grew up in South Boston—”Southie”—and who knew both of the Bulger brothers. At first I thought he was just making up stories to impress those of us who listened to them.
Mick, being Boston Irish, with a broad Southie accent and the indigenous facility for using the word “fuck” not only liberally but as a randomly inserted syllable in nearly any word, was a superb story-teller. He was a talented graphic artist who worked at the station next to mine in an ad agency but who also had a passion for creating his own graphic novels. And he could spin a yarn with the best of them but when he talked about Whitey Bulger, and his accomplice Steve “The Rifleman” Flemmi, he was always serious. “They're bad characters,” Mick would say, “real bad.”
At the time, though Flemmi was in prison, Whitey was still wanted by the FBI and there were plenty of people in South Boston, according to Mick, who claimed knowledge of his whereabouts. Some were on his side, some were scared to death of him. Not being from these parts, I found the whole thing mesmerizing and listened to every story Mick told. Later, when I was living in Gloucester, I met a woman whose husband had been a good friend of Whitey's brother, Bill Bulger, and she had some stories that were also tantalizing—lover of stories that I am.
So, in 2011, when Whitey was caught by the FBI and brought back to Boston, I was thrilled. I read every news report and magazine article and searched the internet for more. Last year when the trial began I couldn't get enough of it. For some crazy reason I couldn't get the radio station that carried the best coverage of the trial in the house so I'd go out and sit in my car to listen to the latest reports. For someone with a fanciful imagination it was perfect—these old mobsters screaming at each other in court, threatening to kill each other, calling each other “rats.” Shades of Jimmy Cagney, how could I not love it?
So, when Boston Globe reporter Kevin Cullen's book Whitey Bulger: America's Most Wanted Gangster and theManhunt That Brought Him to Justice came out, I promptly bought and I recently read it. The book is excellent, thorough, and well-written characters and a plot so densely compelling it almost reads like fiction—even though it isn't.
Whitey Bulger is a sick, twisted sociopath—there's no denying that. He's brutal, ruthless, and duplicitous. But he's not crazy. It seems strange to write that because, like a lot of people, I want to believe that people are inherently good and only do evil out of desperation. I simply cannot help but wonder at a time and a place and an environment that could produce both Bill and Whitey Bulger.
This is a terrific book and I highly recommend it. Sometimes I have to pause and remind myself, “All of this is true. It really happened.” I love fiction because it opens windows to worlds that might be unknowable outside of the fictive dream. But the story of White Bulger is far from a dream—and none of it is fictive.
Thanks for reading.