A hit man in the family: Coming to terms with `Kayo' the killer



Blood Relation

Eric Konigsberg

HarperCollins / 280 pages

We are mesmerized by our psychopaths, and, if we are honest, we envy them a little.

Unlike the rest of us, they are utterly unconflicted about getting what they want, so they don't stand in their own way. They don't sabotage themselves with guilt. They don't trip themselves up obsessing about piddly little concerns, such as other people's right to have a pulse. A psychopath can kill without compunction, and then eat a sandwich next to the body.

The absence of a moral compass allows this type of person to concentrate his energies, to marshal a formidable focus. Often, psychopaths are forces of nature, possessed of prodigious drive and charm.

Blood Relation draws an incisive portrait of one such man. Nebraska writer Eric Konigsberg discovered as an adult that he was related to Harold "Kayo" Konigsberg, a legendary Jewish Mafia hit man who admitted committing more than 20 murders, according to FBI documents.

Blood Relation (some of which was excerpted in The New Yorker) traces what occurs after the younger Konigsberg visits his great-uncle in the prison where he is serving a life sentence, pieces together his story, and then tries to extricate himself from what was proving an increasingly uncomfortable, even dangerous, relationship. (It also was a relationship strongly opposed by members of the author's proper Jewish family, who alternately denied that their black-sheep relative had ever done anything wrong and distanced themselves from him.)

Eric Konigsberg's effort to track down his great-uncle's story was made more difficult by the secrecy of the FBI investigations he sought to publish, and by Kayo's habit of reflexive lying. To compensate, the author delves into sociology (the history of the Mafia in the U.S., in particular why just one generation of Jews was heavily involved in organized crime and psychology, which seems to give credence to the theory that Kayo was born bad).

The story is meticulously reported, and Konigsberg's prose generally is clean and straightforward, though he indulges ever so rarely in an unfortunate turn of phrase ("He burped, like someone who could burp the alphabet").

What is more troubling is the question of whether Kayo Konigsberg, now 75, fully understood that his nephew planned to publish his life story during all those daylong visits to Auburn Correctional Facility in New York spread out over a period of years. Evidence in the book points both ways.

On page 37, the author writes: "I explained the circumstances of the magazine assignment that had brought me to him." That certainly sounds straightforward and unambiguous. Elsewhere, Eric Konigsberg describes carrying mountains of notebooks into the visiting room.

But why, then, did the author dread telling his great-uncle that The New Yorker was about to publish the article, a visit that he describes as "a courtesy" and postpones until the last possible moment? If everything was aboveboard from the beginning, why does Kayo fly into a rage and threaten Eric's life upon hearing this particular bit of news?

Any journalist - and here, Eric Konigsberg is acting in a journalistic capacity - owes it to his subjects to be transparent about his publishing plans.

Even when the subject is a monster.


Mary Carole McCauley writes about the arts for The Sun.

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