Boardwalk Empire

Boardwalk EmpireAtlantic City.

Ah, Atlantic City.

Boardwalk Empire, in telling the unlikely story of Atlantic City’s rise from unpopulated sandy dunes to highly populated, brightly flashing casinos, tells a story that’s quite interesting, if you’re into the whole beach development/political corruption/materialistic greed sort of thing. It’s a story of graft, but with a nostalgic tilt.

All in all, a pretty neat offering. Riveting? Maybe not. But not half-bad.

It’s interesting to watch a sleepy little non-town on a sandy island evolve into a mosquito-bitten would-be health resort evolve into an unusually accessible hedonistic seaside getaway evolve into the present day glitz and glam of casinos. You get to watch (figuratively speaking, that is) as political bosses establish themselves, reign in splendor, and finally fall under the hatchet. You see how the town, against all expectations, becomes a city. You see this history unfurl, the good with the bad. If this sounds like something you’d potentially take a keen interest in, then Boardwalk Empire‘s the book for you.

Before you rush out and buy the thing, I have two light caveats to offer.

First, it’s obvious Nelson Johnson has a love for the subject. It’s also obvious NJ [Nelson Johnson, that is] is pretty competent in terms of his technical writing ability, i.e., he don’t write real bad. (I haven’t gotten to the bad part yet. Don’t worry, it’s coming up.) Despite these two factors—passion for Atlantic City’s history and general competence with the English language—certainly not minor details—the writing itself is not particularly creative. It’s not innovative. It’s not drop-dead brilliant. Of course, it doesn’t need to be these things: the subject material speaks for itself, more or less. When you have mobsters and political bosses and a city with open disregard for laws and social norms and casinos and railroads and power grabs and scandal and criminal trials, you don’t really need much else to make the reading interesting. Though you can’t help but think from time to time that it would’ve been nice to have a little extra flair. You also can’t help but be amused and then annoyed by the sporadic use of ill-advised metaphors (e.g., “By 1974 Atlantic City was one with Rita—a broken-down old whore scratching for customers.”). Things like this detract from the reading experience, but it’s still a neat story. Dig? Okay, with caveat #1 out of the way, let’s move on to 2.

See (here’s caveat #2), there’s the thing with quotes. Actually, it has to do with how Nelson Johnson uses them: that, 9 times out of 10, they’re simply spliced into a paragraph without any real introduction. “I thought it was pretty weird myself.” There are source notes at the back, which let you know who said what, but this only helps if you’re really interested; and let’s face it, most people aren’t going to bother running to the rear of the book every time they come across a quote that isn’t particularly illuminating.

With these two things in mind, Boardwalk Empire’s a neat trip down memory lane. There are some nice tidbits of information to be gleaned along the way.

(Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City, by Nelson Johnson; Paperback: 300 pages; Dimensions (in inches): 8.75 x 0.75 x 5.50; Publisher: Plexus Publishing (NJ); (July 1, 2002); ISBN: 0937548499)