The Pessimist

The Hoffa Wars: Teamsters, Rebels, Politicians, and the Mob

by Dan E. Moldea
Paddington Press, 450 pp., $10.95

The Teamsters

by Steven Brill
Simon and Schuster, 414 pp., $11.95

The space allotted to the American teamster in the landscape of our literature is pretty much its desert portion. The only two figures with much claim upon our memory are Tennessee Williams’s Stanley Kowalski and William Faulkner’s Montgomery Ward Snopes, who was drummed out of Jefferson, Mississippi, for dealing in filthy pictures and thereafter noticed only in dim exile as a Teamster business agent in Memphis. The truck driver as a wound to the feelings of radical feminism, his business agent as a Snopes: such is the extent of what the higher literary sensibility has had to tell us about both. We can hardly say that art has been unjust, but we cannot help feeling that it has been incomplete.

Neither of these current works, however admirable in its special way, manages, I’m afraid, to replenish this great neglected subject. It is a failure that has nothing to do with want of character or intelligence, but a great deal to do with the limitations of method. Brill and Moldea are both investigative reporters. Investigative reporting is the best, probably the only, excuse for journalism; but, welcome as its renaissance is, we ought to recognize that it is an extractive and not a refining process.

Moldea’s book is the more striking instance of the method’s virtue as an inspiration to energy and of its vice as a discouragement to reflection. His shovel throws up the ore and the slag in one indiscriminate mass. On the one hand we have page after page of conscientious, if recondite, detail about the grievances of steelhaulers, the tribulations and treasons of innumerable uprisings against the union’s bravoes, and the beatings and the bombings in the quarrel over Detroit Local 299 between Teamster professionals who had deserted James R. Hoffa and those still loyal to him. On the other hand we have any number of fantasies about the malignant authority exercised by Hoffa over our national history, an authority in a coalition of the Teamsters Union and organized crime. This is the coalition that may or may not have murdered President Kennedy, that ran guns to overthrow Batista, and that then appointed hit men to assassinate Castro. It is all made vivid by irrelevancies like the account of how Santos Trafficante, one of Hoffa’s putative partners in this invisible government, took his oath as a mafioso:

With an ancient Spanish dagger—none from Sicily was available—Trafficante cut his left wrist, allowed the blood to flow, and wet his right hand in the crimson stream. Then he held up the bloody hand.

So long as the blood flows in my body,” he intoned solemnly, “do I, Santos Trafficante, swear allegiance to the will of Meyer Lansky and the organization he represents.”

This anthropological incongruity is not, in fairness, Moldea’s own creation but one borrowed from Ed Reid’s The Grim Reapers. Still, when we are asked to believe in a Meyer Lansky to whom no ritual could be …

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Letters

Hoffa and JFK May 3, 1979