Saturday, November 5, 2011
Brit Review of Nelson Johnson's Boardwalk Empire Book
Boardwalk Empire by Nelson Johnson: review
Nelson Johnson's tale of Atlantic City, called Boardwalk Empire, inspired a television series.
By Tom Greene GMT 04 Nov 2011
Nelson Johnson’s book Boardwalk Empire charts the rise, fall and rise again of one of America’s most iconic sites: Atlantic City. The book begins in 1797 and ends in the twenty-first century, with the bulk of it focused on the three main ‘bosses’ of Atlantic City: Louis ‘the Commodore’ Kuehnle, Nucky Johnson (on whome Steve Buscemi's Enoch 'Nucky' Thompson is based) and Frank ‘Hap’ Farley.
It is easy to see why Johnson’s book has become a highly successful TV show, and not just because this paperback edition comes with characters of the HBO adaptation on the front cover. The book is full of compelling anecdotes and characters. From Thomas Edison designing some of the first lighting and landscaping in Atlantic City in 1902 to Louis Kessell, Nucky Johnson’s five-foot-five ‘trunk of a tree’ butler who started the day massaging his boss before ending it by putting him to bed he was too drunk to do it himself. The book ends with Donald Trump and the ‘eighth wonder of the world’: the Taj Mahal.
The book explores interesting connections between the criminal, commercial and political worlds of Atlantic City. Al Capone had a deft justification for his profession as he highlighted society's double-standards by saying: “Everybody calls me a racketeer I call myself a businessman. When I sell liquor, it’s bootlegging. When my patrons serve it on a silver tray on Lake Shore Drive, it’s hospitality.”
Power struggle is a consistent theme throughout the tale - both personal and political - and with each change in law or personal, Atlantic City had to react. Johnson explores interesting social and economic changes in Atlantic City and the first 50 pages feel more like a social history than the character-driven memoirs that follow. It was a place where the newly-enriched working classes took vacations because ‘there were no class distinctions on the Boardwalk: everyone was someone special’.
There are fascinating revelations about the treatment of black workers, who were barred from white doctors’ offices with the consequence that, by 1900, blacks were conducting tuberculosis at four times the rate of whites.
No footnotes are given for sources or quotations forcing interested readers to turn to the back of the book if they wish to find the quotation’s reference. The book is also reliant on the memories of key players years after the event and the reliability of this testimony is worth considering. There must have been an obvious danger of becoming over-nostalgic for those trying to remembering Atlantic City in the 1920s. That said, the pace of the book works well and the characters keep you interested.
Nucky Johnson’s description of Atlantic City is equally applicable to Nelson Johnson’s book: "We have whiskey, wine, women, song, and slot machines. I won’t deny it and I won’t apologise for it."
Nelson Johnson: Boardwalk Empire (Ebury Press £8.99)
Boardwalk Empire Series 2 is showing on Sky Atlantic.