25 YEARS AFTER INITIAL PUBLICATION, STILL IN PRINT, NOW A TRUE CRIME CLASSIC
The year 2015 marks the 25-year anniversary of the THE WESTIES, the first book written and published by author T.J. English. At the time, there had never been a major book published on the subject of the Irish Mob in America. The Westies became a national best seller, and the book has gone on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Since its initial publication in 1990, The Westies has never been out of print.
At the time that T.J. English first began researching the story of a notoriously violent gang of hoodlums in the New York City neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen, he was a 30 year-old freelance journalist driving a taxi in the evenings to pay the bills. In some ways, he was not yet at a level in the business of writing where you would think he had the juice to get a book published. Except that there was no one else at that time with the perfect combination of talent, drive and insight to tell the story of the Westies. He was the perfect person at the right time, and the rest is history.
The book tells the story of the gang primarily from the point of view of Mickey Featherstone, who was the number two man in the gang behind boss Jimmy Coonan. The author spent many hours interviewing Featherstone, first while he was being held in federal prison and later when he was relocated into the Witness Protection Program. The author’s ability to forge an intimate relationship with his source would establish what has become a staple of English’s subsequent best selling books: his ability to tell underworld tales from the point of view of those who actually lived those stories.
The Westies were known primarily for the level of savage violence that characterized their criminal activities in the 1970s and 1980s. Specifically, they developed a macabre reputation for making their murder victims bodies “do the Houdini.” After they killed someone, they cut the bodies into pieces, bagged the body parts and dumped them into the East River. Eventually, the gang’s criminal activities came to the attention of the Mafia. Led by Coonan, the gang sought to establish a working partnership with the Gambino Crime Family, who were led at the time by Paul Castellano. This partnership, hotly debated within the gang, would eventually sow the seeds of the gang’s destruction.
In late 1987 and on into 1988, the Westies were the subject of a major RICO, or racketeering trial in the Southern District of New York. The primary witness against the gang was Featherstone, who felt that members of the gang, including Coonan, had deliberately framed him for a West Side murder he did not commit. Featherstone had been convicted of that murder and sentenced to life in prison. Instead of accepting that diabolical injustice, he struck back and became a cooperating witness against the gang.
The trial was attended by T.J. English. The courtroom stories of the gang’s roots and crimes, spanning more than twenty years, captured the imagination of the young journalist and cab driver, himself an Irish American from a working-class background. What made it possible for this neophyte, would-be author to sell the story to a major publisher was that English saw this yarn in the larger context of the Irish American experience. The book became about something more than the story of this particular criminal group from this particular neighborhood. It became the story of a certain type of hard-nosed, tough guy Irish American culture that had existed in many U.S. cities for nearly a century.
There is a reason The Westies is now considered a classic. The intimacy of the storytelling at times makes it feel as if this is not even a book about organized crime, but rather the story of a group of friends and associates from a tough neighborhood with a long tradition of criminal activity. In the hands of English, the story of the Westies is humanized and brought down to earth, made to feel relatable and emotionally intimate. All these years later, the book is still shocking for the levels of violence and betrayal that are exposed in such vivid detail.
Read The Westies and you will be brought into the lives of the story’s main characters, but you will also be made to feel as though you are experiencing a living history of the city. Not the “official” history of politics, wars and big public events: a people’s history of ethnic tribalism, survival, and the pursuit of the American Dream from the POV of the mean streets of a festering American metropolis.