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  Tuesday, March 3, 2015
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Rat Bastards
By Rick Winterson

     This is the third of four reviews on books recently written about South Boston and its criminal element.  “Rat Bastards” was written by John Shea after serving a lengthy prison term.

     The book “A Memoir - Rat Bastards” (282 pages) is an autobiography written by John Shea, nicknamed “Red” by close friends.  No co-authors are listed in the copyright (2006), although Shea credits Michael Coffey and Fran Hurley with helping him write it in the “Acknowledgements” section of the book.  “Rat Bastards” was published by HarperCollins Publishers of New York.

     Shea’s story starts off in a predictable manner.  He was the youngest of four children in a partly dysfunctional family – his father wasn’t a factor in the family from early on.  Shea had an admitted problem with authority or control of any kind, so his schooling was spotty, to say the best.  He became a good boxer, but after an attempt to go professional, he drifted back to South Boston and into the crime scene, where his skill with his fists came in handy.

     The South Boston crime scene at the time of Shea’s entry was dominated by James Bulger.  There were many kinds of crime in South Boston, but Shea dealt drugs, mostly cocaine, which he ultimately sourced himself and bought through his connections in Florida.  His true crime story to this point is strangely conventional.  There was nothing very unusual about it. 

     Shea maintains that a kind of code – not being a rat, being a “stand-up guy” –is what counts. In his book, he also claimed time and again that he was the only man of honor in the gangs.  Needless to say, “deals” and violence of almost every kind were actually the glue that held the rackets together.  Fear and informants dominated the scene, not a code of honor. 

     Much to Shea’s dismay, this was proven when James Bulger and Stephen Flemmi were revealed as long-term FBI informers, i.e., “rats”.  Shea was rounded up, along with 50 other second-rank criminals.  He refused to turn, so he received an 11-year sentence.  He risked getting 20-to-life.

     Oddly enough, the last third of the book – the time of Shea’s imprisonment and return – is by far the most interesting part.  The episodes in prison hold the reader’s interest.  Shea’s meeting with his girl, Penelope Howard, after coming home contains the sadness of true tragedy – “I’m too old for you now” – along with some prose that borders on poetry.  And “Penelope” wasn’t her real name.  Shades of Homer’s “The Odyssey”?

     “Rat Bastards” contains a massive moral disconnect, however.  Shea’s definition of honor relies almost entirely on not being an informant, even after his “colleagues” ratted.  Well, that’s the old “jailhouse mentality”.  And guess what - it only works in jailhouses.

In the outside world, Shea and his fellow criminals peddled huge quantities of cocaine to South Boston people, adding in several helpings of violence along the way.  Who can estimate how many wallets, pocketbooks, families, children, loves, and lives the cocaine trade poisoned?  It’s beyond counting, of course, but if that’s the kind of thing that “stand-up guys” do, then perhaps they should sit down for a while.  A long while.

     Still, Shea ends his story on a sympathetic note.  There’s a trace of sorrow and remorse at the end, and this reviewer admits to liking stories of redemption.

  VERDICT:  Not great literature, and slow at first, but it gets better as it goes along (B).   

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