In 1968, Jimmy Breslin joined on the staff of the New York Post as a columnist. Breslin, a New York native, utilized a biting tongue-in-cheek style in his political columns and seemed to speak directly to the people of New York. He quickly became one of the most widely-read columnists in the city, and thus, in the country. Previous to working with the Post, Breslin worked with Newsday, and by the time his first collection of columns came out in 1967, Breslin already had quite a following. In late 1969, his first work of fiction, The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight, was published. In early 1970, the sales rose high enough to put the book at number seven on the year's bestsellers list. The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight combined typical Breslin humor and New York savvy with the subject of the Cosa Nostra (mafia) and came together to form a comic satire of the Italian mob scene in New York in the late 1960's. Some critics claimed that much of the book was stolen from Breslin's columns, and that it was these sections that gave the novel its shining moments. As well respected as Breslin was in the field of journalism, this was his first work of fiction, so one would expect some critics to tip their hats to the journalistic moments in the book and toss the fiction attempts away as trash. However, most people agreed: The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight was flat-out funny.
Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Breslin's appearance on the bestsellers list came on the coattails of the most famous mafia book of all time, Mario Puzo's The Godfather, which ruled the charts in 1969. While Puzo's book was a serious drama and Breslin's was a farce, both books offered a voyeuristic look into one of the most deadly and glamorous worlds in modern-day society. The theme of the mafia seemed to be a sure winner at the box-offices as well, as both The Godfather and The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight were made into full feature films. Coincidentally, Robert DeNiro landed his first major acting role in the 1971 version of Breslin's novel, one year before Coppola and Brando's Godfather came out. But despite the obvious similarities between the two, The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight and The Godfather were completely different types of books. For one thing, the Godfather was a behemoth of a novel ? a 448 pager ? while Breslin's was a mere 249 pages, hardly the length one expects from a bestseller. The genre distinction between the two books is also noteworthy. Tales of drama and suspense are frequently on the bestsellers charts, while comedies are less popularly sought out and do not make the charts as often. Why then, did Breslin do so well with such a short, comedic piece?
To see just how much of an anomaly Breslin's novel was on the bestsellers list, let's take the other bestsellers on the list from 1970, the year The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight hit the charts, and compare genres.
1 ? Love Story, by Erich Segal ? a melodramatic romance.
2 ? The French Lieutenant's Woman, by John Fowles ? a Victorian romance.
3 ? Islands in the Stream, by Ernest Hemingway ? a posthumous melodrama with romantic undertones.
4 ? The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart ? an Arthurian romance.
5 ? Great Lion of God, by Taylor Caldwell ? a biblical drama.
6 ? QB VII, by Leon Uris ? a post-nazi drama.
7 ? The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight, by Jimmy Breslin ? a bouncy Mafioso farce.
8 ? The Secret Woman, by Victoria Holt ? a romance.
9 ?Travels with my Aunt, by Graham Greene ? a contemplative road novel.
10 ? Rich Man, Poor Man, by Irwin Shaw ? a literary drama.
Against this list, The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight seems to stick out like a sore thumb. In 1970 it seems that people were reading dramatic novels, and in particular, romantic dramatic novels. However, by glancing at the lists of the following years, it seems like one comedy usually seems to poke its head onto the list, suggesting that there might be a group of American readers that are partial to buying the ?biggest' comedy of the season. Breslin's novel certainly adhered to that description.
It would be difficult to find the comedy pieces that The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight was competing against in the early months of 1970, but the fact that Breslin's name was so well known in New York City and that this was his first novel, it would not be surprising to discover that the publisher's put some serious money into advertising the book. The New York Post, Breslin's paper, has a large and influential place in daily advertising, and perhaps this had something to do with the fact that the book rose to the top of the comedy charts in 1970. Also, the book was seen as a perfect vehicle for a film, and it could be that the sales were influenced by all the screenwriters in Hollywood salivating over the pages and wondering who to cast in the role of Big Jelly. Either way, the Breslin name carried a great deal of weight at the time, and the fact that the book was not completely terrible was probably enough to appease the comedy crowd. Also, sales in New York must have given The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight a boost, considering the large numbers of New York Post readers belonging to the Breslin faithful.
The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight was Jimmy Breslin's only book of fiction on the bestsellers list, although he wrote a few other novels. The fact that The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight was Breslin's first book would have contributed to the hype, along with the apparent Godfather correlation which may have helped sales along. Critical acclaim for the novel was lukewarm, with most critics pointing to the comedic aspects of the book as its best aspect. While it is a mildly funny book, The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight is not terribly well-written nor cleanly written one, and it is interesting that the critics did not bash it completely. Perhaps this is another side effect of Breslin's respected name.
The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight had a middle-ranging lifespan on the bestsellers list, which is a behavior that can be expected from comedies, which are lighter reading than dramas and tend to have less staying power. Sales of the book tapered away until the release of the DeNiro movie in 1971 led to more printings. Due to the influence of the film, the book is still in print. It is safe to assume that Robert DeNiro substantially helped the sale of the novel.
Since Breslin remained on staff at the New York Post and continued his fine work in journalism, The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight, his first work of fiction, may have affected his reputation less than a bestseller affects other authors. This stands to reason because, unlike some first time authors, Breslin already had a reputation before publishing his first novel. However, after the publication and subsequent movie career of the Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight, Breslin's own career as a newspaper man flourished like never before, and in the infamous Summer of Sam in 1977, he became a figurehead of sorts for the press when David Berkowitz sent him personal letters detailing the tragic murders. Breslin's connection to the murderer eventually led to the famous arrest, adding more to Breslin's reputation than his best selling novel. Later, Breslin's investigation of two Congressmen led to their indictments and pushed his journalistic career up another notch. When he finally received the Pulitzer Prize in 1986, Breslin was known more for his journalism than his fiction, but it still seems that The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight is mentioned in all retrospectives of Jimmy Breslin's work, which, considering all his achievements, is an attestation to the degree of notoriety placed on having a book on the bestsellers list.
While the genre of comedy may not be the most prolific on the bestsellers list, Portnoy's Complaint, another comedy novel, rose to the top of the charts in 1969, the year before Breslin's book hit number seven. The author, Philip Roth, seems more respected in literary circles than Breslin and, besides winning over the standard comic audience, Roth probably sold copies of his book to the elitist literati as well. (The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight is not exactly something you would expect to find on a professor's bookshelf.) Strangely enough, Breslin's name is mentioned in the Portnoy's Complaint, a clear reference to Breslin's already growing reputation as a political newspaper man, and perhaps a harbinger of his oncoming success in the fiction world.
In 1969, the top two best selling novels were a comedy novel (Portnoy's Complaint) and a gangster novel (The Godfather). Jimmy Breslin's The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight was both a comedy and a gangster novel, and while the 1970 reader seemed hungry for romance and drama, an audience still existed for comedy. This audience, plus the runoff audience from Puzo's Cosa Nostra novel, provided a market for Breslin's fiction. His name recognition allowed him to break into that market with little to no trouble, and in remaining within the stylistic boundaries of his journalistic background, Breslin became a best selling author for the first and last time in his fiction career. While The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight is not a work of great literary merit, it gives glimpses of Breslin's New York City savvy and provides a few laughs for the light reader. What The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight will be remembered for, however, has nothing to do with Jimmy Breslin. In effect, the title will always be tied to the first starring role of a burgeoning young actor by the name of Robert DeNiro.