THE FACE was perfect: the manic popeyes gleaming out from the chubby idiot-mask, the lunatic grin flashing defiance at the hundreds of policemen who had spent over a year pursuing him. It was a knowing grin. David R. Berkowitz, popularly known as the Son of Sam, was--as the New York Post's predictably tasteless blood-red headline proclaimed--Caught!, but he hardly looked like a man who was ready to pay for his sins. Berkowitz seemed instead to realize that he was about to become the biggest media sensation of a hot and stickily depressing summer--John Travolta with a large-caliber revolver, headed straight for that pantheon Americans have reserved for those with the balls to wreak sudden death on a large scale. Perhaps he was caught, perhaps he would--eventually--have to pay. But before that, Berkowitz knew, he could sit back and flash his madman's smirk, while helping lots of other people to collect.
And collect they have. The Berkowitz bandwagon had, of course, begun early, even before his capture, with the sale of Son of Sam T-shirts bearing the latest police sketches of the unknown ".44-caliber killer." Still, it was not until after his arrest that the salesmanship began in earnest. Then-Mayor Abe Beame, faced with a tough primary fight, used the arrest to try to peddle his floundering law-and-order re-election campaign; although he failed, the election finally went to another to another candidate who played to the lingering public panic with repeated calls for the re-instatement of the death penalty. And Rupert Murdoch, the Australian publisher of the Post--whose spectacular lack of taste is matched only by his spectacular success in selling newspapers--enjoyed an even bigger bonanza. While the Post's front-page fantasies about the killings attracted hundreds of thousands of readers throughout the summer, Murdoch hit the jackpot when he decorated his front page with a series of letters from the suspect to a former girlfriend--under the headline "How I Became a Mass Murderer, by David R. Berkowitz." Only in America, they say. But the money kept pouring in.
Considering the competition, then, Jimmy Breslin and Dick Schaap have not committed any grievous sins in writing .44, a novelized account of Berkowitz's 14-month killing spree. But they haven't done much of a service, either: the book reads more like a dime-store cheapie than a presumably classy $10 hardback, and what goes between those hard covers is enough to make you yearn for the good old days, when the Papal Index kept the trash in the barrels and out of the bookstores. Breslin and Schaap offer little more than a Dragnet-style, names-have-been-changed-to-protect-the-innocent-and-save-us-from-a-lawsuit rundown of the murders, with a little sex and some ethnic name-calling thrown in, presumably to distinguish the book's heroic police inspector from the strait-laced Sgt. Friday Readers looking for a thoughtful analysis of the tortured reasoning--or lack thereof--that could lead to six random murders will be disappointed by the Exorcist-like ranting about demons and howling dogs; others, who might have hoped for a taut study of politicking and pressures within the police department will have to do with occasional references to blood rivalries between the Irish and Italians on the force. Not exactly Pulitzer Prize-winning stuff.
Of course, it is probably unfair to apply very high standards to a book that, after all, pretends to be nothing more than entertainment. Breslin is a marvelously gifted writer, no matter what his topic; a tough, grown-up Irish-American punk, he has a street-corner sense of humor and a sharp ear for dialogue, and his characterizations of middle-class New Yorkers seem to have stepped straight out of the subway. Even in dubious collaboration with Schaap--a sportswriter whose previous literary accomplishments, if that is the work for them, include a bunch of as-told-to locker-room memoirs--Breslin manages to sneak through some of the ironic wit and compassion that for years have made him the hero of the straphangers who read his daily column in the New York Daily News.
UNFORTUNATELY, even if Breslin were in top form, which he isn't here, he would not be able to prevent the book from degenerating into a schlockish cops-and-robbers duel. Given the format--the authors were free to create interesting personalities for their fictionalized characters, but most of the plot was determined by Berkowitz's actions--and the purpose of the book--which was apparently to make lots of money--the authors had little freedom. What starts out as a penetrating portrait of the middle-class tragedy that was Berkowitz's first murder, of necessity turns into a fast-paced detective yarn. It seems as if the authors realized that they did not have enough time to delve into the subtle ramifications of each of Berkowitz's crimes, and settled on the Mickey Spillane approach instead. It is a shame; the book could have been much more powerful had the authors decided only to portray one or two of the families that Berkowitz shattered with his big wood-handled .44. That, however, would not have sold so well.
As a result, .44 is something of a half-breed, a strange and ill-conceived little book that wanders around somewhere between being a police record and a cheap detective novel. Most annoying--and there are many annoying features of this book--is the authors' practice of assigning fictitious names to all the characters, in a clear attempt to avoid the lawsuits that would otherwise accompany even the slightest exercise of their literary license. That may be understandable, but the problem is that the major characters are so well-known that the pseudonyms become a real distraction, an annoying reminder to the reader that he actually went out and spent good money on a book with all the dramatic intensity of a police blotter and nowhere near the imagaination of the fairy-tale writers on the Post reporting corps. As for the minor characters--well, they're pretty recognizable, too. Like the announcer says, the names have been changed, but not the ethnicities.
Probably the saddest thing about .44 is that it could have been so much better. The book at times shows flashes of Breslin's brilliance, particularly in the searching descriptions of the various blue-collar, Budweiser-and-Yankees neighborhoods that witnessed Berkowitz's first attacks. In fact, Breslin--who received several letters from the killer, both before and after his capture--was in an ideal spot to portray the anguish and frustration of searching for, and being taunted by, a man who quite accurately referred to himself as "Mr. Monster." And when the book deals with the killings in Forest Hills, an overly-affluent neighborhood in Queens Breslin now calls home, the writing understandably gains power, seeming less the dry scribblings in a reporter's notebook and more the work of a man who has come too close to tragedy ever to treat it clinically. This is Breslin at his best, the fire of a man caught in the midst of a horror he cannot understand, and the ice of a relentless chronicler of the evils of modern times. But these passages, sadly, don't sell as many copies as the blood-and-guts, psycho-killer-on-the-loose scenes--a fact of which Breslin and Schaap have obviously been apprised.
THE REST of the book, then, is the stuff of which B-movies are made: cardboard characters, dirty cops on the make, and lots of healthy, Type-O blood. Even those scenes that could have been meaningful, such as the portrayal of Rupert Murdoch and the rest of the scoop-hungry New York press corps, degenerate into near-slanderous caricatures, with only the Breslin-character retaining his integrity. Funny thing.
Actually, though, it isn't. For all its pretensions, for all the talent that its authors brought to the task, for all the possibilities for incisive social commentary that the situaiton offered, .44 is simply not a good book. A failure as literature, a failure as criticism of modern society, it succeeds only on the level of base, mindless entertainment--and even then, its appeal increases in geometric proportion to the blood-lust of the reader. Like In Cold Blood and Helter Skelter, .44 appeals directly to the mass murderer in each of us, that frightening corner of the soul that feels a morbid thrill each time the television announcer breaks into Edge of Night with news of some new mindless horror. But perhaps for that very reason, books such as .44 might actually be a public service, a means of measuring, by their very popularity, the current level of savagery in American society. For the sake of the Republic, let's hope not--for at last count, .44 was selling very well indeed.