Leonardo DiCaprio and Benicio del Toro snapped up the film rights to T.J. English's brilliant new book before it was written or published (it goes on sale March 20).
That's the kind of white hot interest this author and his ongoing series of American crime histories inspires now, the latest of which is "The Corporation."
This week IrishCentral talks to the bestselling writer about just how central organized crime is to the story of America and what that says about us all.
From a certain perspective the history of the United States is the history of organized crime, after all. From the genocidal attacks and expulsions of the Native Americans to the forcible unpaid labor of African slaves, the opportunities that were found here by many often came at the expense of someone else.
But not everyone has the stomach to peer at what's lurking under so many historical monuments however, although English has made it the signature aspect of his career.
In The Corporation, his latest and greatest chapter in a decades long, increasingly symphonic meditation on all the subsets of the American crime families, he focuses this time on how the Cuban mob – forcibly exiled from their home by the revolution – quickly rose to power in South Florida until their power base extended along the east coast all the way to New York and New Jersey by the 1980's.
The book has already been snapped up in Hollywood, with Paramount securing the film rights after an intensely fought bidding war that saw Leonardo DiCaprio successfully secure the production rights with Benicio Del Toro slated to star as Jose Miguel Battle Sr., the complex and chilling real life godfather of The Corporation.
Before the film comes the book however, and fans will want to know that it's a tour de force through the exiled Cuban underworld in the United States, with a cast of characters that include refugees, racketeers, corrupt cops, hitmen, and their wives and girlfriends, all caught up in the great American saga of desperation and empire building.
“I sent a 120 page proposal out about the book I intended to write,” English tells the IrishCentral. “I had the whole book conceptualized in my head from start to finish when I sent it in. In my experience it's always worthwhile to write a longer proposal.”
It certainly was in the case of The Corporation. Before it has even been published it's a major success.
“Based on just the strength of that proposal the bidding started,” explains English, “which put extra pressure on me to get the book right. It was not an optimal situation in terms of the writing of the book, and I also started working with the screenplay writer almost right away, but I'm obviously glad it happened.”
Since 1990, when his first book about the Hell's Kitchen Irish mob the Westies was published, organized crime and the immigrant communities they often spring from has been English's abiding theme.(He worked for Irish Voice Newspaper when he first came to New York.)
What has emerged over the decades is nothing less than symphonic, a deep dive into the hard pressed and hardscrabble immigrant lives that take the violent road to riches, with fateful consequences.
“Violence is a constant theme in the American story, but not everyone has a real interest in seeing or knowing that,” says English. “Even today in the comment sections on Amazon I'll be criticized for being controversial, or for shining a light on the people and places that make some people very uncomfortable.”
English's own Irish background is instructive. His ancestors arrived here during the Great Hunger and had a tough go of it making ends meet. That's the kind of hard start makes him understand the Cuban mob, also exiled from their homeland, and having many doors closed to them on their arrival here.
“In their own communities the Corporation weren't seen as criminals,” English says. “You have to understand they all saw themselves as dispossessed by the revolution and in some ways by the involvement of the U.S. Government in the island's internal affairs.”
Because they were neither here nor there they kept to themselves in Miami he says, retaining their language and their fierce devotion to the land of their birth. “Jose Miguel Battle Sr., the godfather, got his start as a cop in Cuba, where he learned all about how corruption works,” says English.
It was handy training. Later in Florida Battle got involved with the numbers games, amassing a small fortune from loansharking and gambling. It quickly added up (by the 70's he was reputedly making $45 million a year from the illegal lottery known in his community as bolita).
If the cash he amassed was spectacular, the danger that it put him in was too. What protected him at times was the rumor (and it was only a rumor) that he had some close involvement with the CIA that meant he was protected by them in some sense. It was enough to project an aura, to make him look untouchable for a time.
Having spent so long researching and thinking about the various mob families, what has studying the criminal underworld taught English about America? “It's been a long time now since the blinds went up for me,” he admits. “What I have learned is how much violence of one kind or another has been central to the American story.”
That's not the kind of statement that would greatly please the current White House, who want to sell us the American past as a land of lost content that we should all yearn to return to. “I think Donald Trump is selling a deceptive picture of what the American past actually was,” says English. “The truth is a lot less palatable.”
Now known as America’s top chronicler of organized crime, English's own Irish American background makes him ideally suited to capturing exactly how the political revolution in Cuba led to the birth of a powerful exile crime organization in the U.S.
It also helps that Jose Miguel Battle Sr. lived his life as though auditioning for the role of godfather. His story is one of brotherhood and stark betrayal, of unrivaled power and eye-popping financial success, and English gives the dramatic saga his all, aware from start that he's telling another signature American rags to riches story.
It's up to you the reader to untangle the morality, or lack of it, of course. English puts the basic facts of the case before us and lets us decide for ourselves. “Many of the people I spoke to genuinely liked Battle,” he says.
“They describe a man who took in stray dogs because he was moved by their predicament. Some talk of the good he did for people. But he was also directly or indirectly responsible for dozens of murders,” English says.
“The brutal side of him had some of its origins in the failed attempt to counter the revolution. He was humiliated by that experience and he never really recovered from it. It could have played into the brutality that he could access, which contrasted sharply with the man others describe.”
By the mid-1980s the Cuban mob's power base stretched from South Florida’s exile community up the east coast to New York and New Jersey. By then it was known universally as The Corporation and for decades it ruled over all, outstripping even the Italian Mafia, until it was all undone in an orgy of gun violence.
Until now the true scale and scope of the Cuban mob saga in the U.S. has remained untold. What English has been doing since 1990 is telling the story of America's mob communities in the 20 century as a kind of shadow immigrants tale. Their struggles echo our own and their successes stick it to a society that often rejected both them and us.
No wonder, given all that, that we can have such an ambivalent and conflicted take on their rise and fall. From Whitey Bulger to Jose Miguel Battle Sr. one man's criminal can be another man's neighborhood mayor, after all.
Throughout his career English has been particularly successful in getting insiders to speak openly for the first time, and his own research and scholarship over almost three decades pieces together the epic story of this unparalleled criminal enterprise – one that we the Irish can hear more than a few echoes in.
If English colonialism was the organized criminal enterprise that drove our - and English's - ancestors to these shores, then American colonialism helped build the United States on the backs of the dispossessed and and on the backs of slaves too. Crime is everywhere in America's past, and English shows us in this extraordinary new crime study that the moral high ground is still much further off than we like to think.
The Corporation will be released March 20, Harper Collins $28.99.