King of the Quill

November 19, 2010 by Barbara Bierach
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Any self-respecting journalist dreams of becoming a famous novelist. However, they rarely turn out to be the Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway or Martha Gelhorn of their time. Freed from the restrictions of a newspaper many journalists create boring door stoppers, evoking James Joyce’s “Ulysses” – not necessarily because of the power of their language but rather from their heaviness and length of their tome. Not so the Sydney Morning Herald’s columnist Mark Dapin in his first book of fiction “King Of The Cross”: He wrote 308 racy pages of quirky humour, innuendo and wry comments on life, love and licentiousness.

That Dapin’s book turned out to be an entertaining read, though, is due to the fact that he didn’t write a novel to begin with. Instead he created a docu-drama, depicting the history of Sydney’s sleazy red light district King’s Cross – and its personnel – over several decades. His faux-“Underbelly” is in fact a thinly veiled biography of the Jewish career criminal Abe Saffron, who invented the Australian version of organized crime, amassing a huge fortune, using lawyers and accountants to set up businesses that fronted an illegal gambling, sex and liquor kingdom.

To protect this empire Saffron corrupted anyone he needed including the disgraced NSW Premier Sir Robert Askin, judges, and that infamous constant of organised crime in NSW, the Police Force, starting with its commissioner. Those whom he could not corrupt were blackmailed or, as rumour has it, killed. Apart from tax evasion the NSW Police were unable to secure any convictions against Saffron over a period of almost 40 years, which did not help to reinforce the public’s trust in the state police and government officials – maybe Saffron’s longest lasting legacy.

The story of this charismatic crook and his tale of greed, sex and betrayal is retold through the eyes of an English immigrant who’s not too bothered by law and order himself. “Slick” might ring a chord with the many Brits who came to Australia to reinvent themselves, an Australia where he more or less accidentally meets Jake Mendoza during an attempt to score a job in media.

The young man cannot help but admire the brains of his elegant elder who used to be Sydney’s “Mr. Big” but who is now a lonely old criminal who has betrayed – and has been betrayed by – his women, associates and friends. Mendoza feels isolated and misunderstood and hires Slick to ghost-write his biography and to set his legacy straight.

So Dapin, alias Slick, retells Mendoza’s life, turning a tale that corruption investigators would dismiss as vile into an account of a street-wise womanizer who always remained a step ahead of his enemies, knew how to take care of business, turn the profits of the underworld into real estate and to maintain a thin gloss of respectability and his sense of humour.

The author peels back the layers of two different metaphorical onions, those of Mendoza’s character and Slick’s various skins and professions, while different gangs try to wrestle power from Mendoza at the Cross. Dapin’s tale sticks pretty much to Abe Saffron’s life, changing just enough names and backgrounds to avoid disgruntled heirs from pursuing lawsuits. He plays around with aliases for the protagonists; a biker is are called “Rabbit”, journalists like breakfast items “Ham” and “Eggs” or “Spiegeleier”, which is German for fried eggs. Why Dapin though, an avowedly Jewish journalist (he wears his heart on his sleeve in the SMH on that one) creates a wannabe-journalist as main character only pretending to be a Jew – to the point of turning up at a funeral in a little skullcap to make up the numbers for a proper Kaddish ruining it that way – remains his private joke.

Dapin manages to marry both worlds: he is journalist enough to research his story well and artist enough to fill in the gaps where the exact facts remain a mystery. Dapin’s Mendonza is probable more convincing as King of the Cross than Saffron ever was. And Dapin was never funnier, sadder and more world-weary than as Slick Nick. But there is a product warning, too: Dapin choses wild sexual and violent overtones to recount his story. Little old ladies: please beware!

Mark Dapin: King Of The Cross, Pan Macmillan Australia, 2010.

Comments

One Response to “King of the Quill”
  1. richard joachim says:

    I was there over this period, or some of it. I knew Saffron. What really gets my goat (don’t know where this expression came from) is that a criminal is anyway glorified. Saffron was not a Jew as he ‘opted out’ of the Faith as did, in more recent times, Marcus Einfeld and Bernie Madoff. Jew is as Jew does. If one doesn’t live the Faith, one has made him/her self a memser. Saffron, Madoff, and his cohorts, just like Einfeld, have absolutely no right to call themselves ‘Jewish’. Might have been born that way, but betrayed everything that is ‘Jewish’. It is people like these whom have contributed to the persecution and murder of other (true) Jews, by living up to the expectations of anti-Semites. Our greatest enemies don’t come from without; they come from within!

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