Bootlegger and the Sheriff
THE NOBLEST ROMAN, by David Halberstam. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1961, 304 pp. $3.95.
As a tale of the masterful, but neurotic bootlegger manipulating a medicore, but good sheriff into a tragic trap. The Noblest Roman is somewhat ineffectual. But, as satire on the South, on county politics and preachings, and on the art of bootlegging, David Halberstam's first novel is pretty damned witty.
Unfortunately, the wit of this former CRIMSON managing editor tends to minimize the impact of the tragedy. Since everybody is sitting cares when the sheriff, Zenoch McCalla, commits suicide.
McCalla's election constituted a triumph for the virtuous, "dry," citizens of Corallis, who preach lasting welfare on John Barleycorn, but used to sneak out behind the shed every once in a while anyway. Undoubtedly, the most preached- against man in the county is Angelo Bonatura, who has the local monopoly in the illicit liquor trade, a monopoly that has taken him eight years and an artful homicide to complete.
Quite early in his career. Angelo had decided that it would be more economical to own the sheriff, rather than to keep buying him off. So he went out and elected him a sheriff, Turk by name. Although Turk's electoral defeat bothered Angelo, his own failure to buy off McCalla rankled much more. Most around chuckling. No one really of the book deals with his attempts to remove or subordinate the new sheriff and resume his formerly lucrative operations.
Angelo is indeed an artful fellow, but he does not emerge as quite human. Decidedly amoral when the plot demands, he can kill one of his henchmen with hardly an ethical shrug. Yet Hallberstam takes him too far to the other extreme. Certainly Iago never worried about his son, as Angelo does: "He was trying to build confidence with the boy. It was a hard thing to do because he had to combine family with business.
Halberstam finds a link between ter in his protagonist's paranoiac pride. Because Angelo was Italian, the local burghers never accepted him. With this alienation as a basis, Halberstam makes the bootlegger a proud man who must win completely or completely withdraw, who manifests his hatred for the hypocrites of Corvallis by selling whiskey to them. Pride, however, does not succeed in uniting the two sides of Angelo. We are unsure whether he is a man terribly hurt, striking back violently, or-a sadistic artist taking pains to perform every little criminal chore in exactly the right manner.
Thus, we do not know quite what to do when Angelo comes up with a plan to use his son's paramour, a pregnant prostitute, to destroy McCalla for good. So we chuckle. Although the plan is ingeniously appalling, it is not particularly hor-these two sides of Angelo's characrifying, because Angelo is more humorous than human.
For much the same reason, McCalla's suicide is only mildly tragic. In a long paragraph at the end, and once or twice during the proceedings, Halberstam indicates that the new sheriff was caught between duty to his supporters (father, preacher, frigid and nagging wife) on the one hand, and, on the other, a desire to say the hell with it all (frigid and nagging wife). Although he flatly and ethically rejects Angelo's offer of five thousand dollars a year, in return for a certain averting of the eyes, he goes for Claudia, the prostitute, like an alcoholic for his morning shot. Needless to say, Halberstam tosses in a few scruplous after thoughts. After all, what would the loyal, good citizens say?
In the end, the supposedly virtuous sheriff finds himself trapped. When the inconsistent ethics of this not really noble Roman triumph at the end, it is unexpected, to least.
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