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This Side of Hell : TRINITIES, By Nick Tosches (Doubleday: $23.95; 435 pp.) : CHINA WHITE, By Peter Maas (Simon & Schuster: $23; 270 pp.)

November 06, 1994|Fred Schruers | Fred Schruers is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone

In a recent Associated Press story (picked up in this newspaper) on the threat to American cities from Asian organized crime, one federal prosecutor said: "It's the worst of both worlds. They have an international organization that gives them access to information and commodities throughout Asia--and then they have local gangs."

This is the threat addressed, fictionally, in these two accomplished thrillers. Both writers are seasoned reporters, authors of respected nonfiction works (Maas' "King of the Gypsies," "The Valachi Papers" and "Serpico"; Tosches' "Hellfire," the Jerry Lee Lewis biography, and "Dino"). Surely they've been aware of each other, as they race toward the retail shelves (and the cinemas, with both trumpeting their sale to major studios), with what might be seen as the same bucket of goods.

On closer examination, however, the books are quite different; Tosches has more rude energy and eloquence--shading often into grandiloquence--and a full-scale Mafia subplot. Maas' steelier, serviceable prose goes about its business with a nod to the Mafia he's cogently depicted in the past, then coasts through with a by-the-numbers love story and a predictable, screenplay structure. Tosches is in fact raking his way toward higher ground, toward something like Robert Stone's or Russell Banks' incident-rich novels of moral quandary. With Tosches, it's a dark night of the soul, as he feverishly follows his reluctant Mafioso; with Maas, it's a great night at Elaine's Restaurant, as he glibly displays the knack that's made him, as the jacket attests, "author of many bestsellers."

Each book's story ranges from New York to Asia. We begin Tosches' book in the company of two anonymous hit men in an East Harlem Italian joint, pull back to the grumpily aging Mafia boss, Giuseppe "Joe" DiPietro, and, in the third chapter, meet his Chinese counterpart, the aging Chinatown junkie and gang boss Chen Fang. These quickly sketched portraits give way to a scene at the Brooklyn home of our hero, Johnny DiPietro (who turns out to be one of the hit men) and his alienated wife Diane. This Johnny, who advises her to bring home his usual video fare ("Tits. Blood. Monsters.") is a far cry from the story's later Johnny, who becomes almost Nabokovian is his complexities.

Tosches takes Johnny there in small steps, with the hinge point being a pact with his Uncle Giuseppe. The aging don, sick of seeing the Chinese infringe on his turf, has cooked up a plan to usurp their drug profits. Such ambition is quixotic in the post-"Godfather" world the tattered Mafia hierarchy inhabits, but compelling. In the way Francis Ford Coppola's ambivalent Al Pacino (or later, a zealous Andy Garcia) had to take over from the weaklings who'd forgotten how to wield ice picks and spread terror, Johnny takes to the task, nonetheless fearing (in Tosches' overheated style) that "the reverberations of this baptism in evil would be inexorable, that no amount of wealth could bribe Charon to ferry him back from hell."

Along Johnny's path, Drug Enforcement Special Agent Bob Marshall, Nigerian smuggler Alhaji Shehu Musa, New York Chinese mobsters Billy Sing and scattered cameo players get embroiled in what becomes a war between the Mafia and the Chinese Triad gangs; all but the most major players tend to get suckered and killed as the body count colorfully rises. (Marshall gets involved in a bit of sexual intrigue that would seem implausible had Tosches not prepared the ground so well, and rendered the moment so artfully.)

Along with a group of fine minor characters, what Tosches gives us with the extra space he takes is lots of story, and lots of details: how to cook squid, how to assassinate by acid, knife, gun, fire, bomb and virus (and how to cover one's tracks), how to launder money through bearer bonds, how to tell if your Thai wife is cheating ("Usually she will cut her hair and treat you better") and--in a description Maas also provides--how to cook up commercial quantities of the highly pure heroin (No. 4, or "China White") that is the lynch-pin of the Triads' grasp for U.S. street territory.

By bearing down on the resurgent Mafiosi in the person of Johnny, Tosches hovers comfortably between a good pulp fiction read and something nobler. Here's a typical musing from Johnny: "The world itself seemed to be growing dimmer, more magical, more vibrant, but more ominous too, a region of unspeakable possibility, sorrow, fear and doleful shades, as in the haunted black forest of a dream, disturbing and enchanting and fatal, in the blood." Yes, a William Kennedy or an E. L. Doctorow summons such things up with less perspiration, but Johnny sees (and partakes of) enough human beastliness to lend weight to such earnest underpinnings.

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