by Nelson DeMille
Grand Central Publishing (1990)
What do you get when two dying breeds—old blueblood money and the mafia—clash in one of America’s great novels?
The Gold Coast by Nelson DeMille.
Hey, I’ve read the novel three times but since the publisher captured the story with such clarity I’ll humbly bow to this succinct and spot-on dust jacket summary.
Welcome to the fabled Gold Coast, that stretch on the North Shore of Long Island that once held the greatest concentration of wealth and power in America. Here two men are destined for an explosive collision: John Sutter, Wall Street lawyer, holding fast to a fading aristocratic legacy; and Frank Bellarosa, the Mafia don who seizes his piece of the staid and unprepared Gold Coast like a latter-day barbarian chief and draws Sutter and his regally beautiful wife, Susan, into his violent world. Told from Sutter’s sardonic and often hilarious point of view, and laced with sexual passion and suspense, The Gold Coast is Nelson DeMille’s captivating story of friendship and seduction, love and betrayal.
Now, should you be one of the unfortunates who hasn’t read this novel (from the land of The Great Gatsby) get your page turning hands on a (2008) reprint ASAP. Over the years the jury has come in on this—Mr. DeMille’s very best novel, me thinks!—giving the author a clear perspective of how The Gold Coast was and continues to be perceived.
We see this in the author’s retro/intro of the 2008 edition: “The themes of this story are diverse, and aside from an intriguing plot, good writing, interesting locales, and informative peeks into other worlds and cultures, what ultimately makes for a good novel are the characters.”
Ah Mr. DeMille, those Gold Coast characters! Mamma Mia! Page Turners saw John Sutter, the voice of the story, as a real jerk. But in the way that guys have been known to look at this designation, i.e., “He’s our kind of jerk!”
Sutter is witty, ballsy, and arrogant with a law degree that didn’t come from the locksmith school. He graduated from the New Haven YALE and draws every breath in total awareness of his education, his bloodlines, his intelligence and his rightful place on this earth, which happens to be The Gold Coast. So he’s a bit of snob but a rare one in that he knows it and laughs at the snooty gene pool swimming around him—Roosevelts, Vanderbilts, Woolworths, Whitneys, Morgans. These grown up trust-fund babies simply splash and dip (reluctantly) with the nouveau in a world that’s no more real today than had Disney designed it himself.
Susan is one of them. A card carrying (not credit for God’s sake—little snooty calling cards that simply say Susan Sutter, Stanhope Hall!) bitch of the first order. The intelligent gorgeous daughter of William Stanhope and heir to mansion, estate and fortune she—when taking time off from fulfilling her sexual fantasies with John—paints local landscapes, does a bit of ladylike gardening, lunches with her Gold Coast gazebo “equals,” wheels around the Gold Coast in her classic Jaguar and rides horseback on the estate.
*Oh, those guys that DeMille mentions in the introduction who say they would hate Susan but would love something called Susan Sutter Redhead Night? Count me in—on both counts!
John and Susan, parents of two grown children, do love each other but perhaps in a way that those of us below the Sutters’ social/financial water line might find hard to understand. Can we say prenup? John, the Wall Street lawyer, has the career but she has the old money. And, Susan, (as John would attest when he finds himself in a tax “situation”) like her father, never touches the principal!
And then we have Frank Bellarosa. Rude, crude and by the standards of the Sutters’ and their Gold Coast brethren—socially unacceptable. Frank is clearly the poster boy for Machiavelli’s Prince, “. . .a man who by definition has a cynical disregard for morality and a focus on self-interest and personal gain.”
Disregard for morality! This freakin’ guy’s a known (albeit not indicted or convicted) killer. And yet, like Tony Soprano, (DeMille’s don preceded the Sopranos by nearly a decade) there’s something about this bad-boy Bellarosa that makes him a seductive magnet—one that the Sutters find themselves stuck with and to.
*Note to John, never trade favors with a Mafia don. You might find yourself in court perjuring yourself while defending a murderer!
* Note to Susan, moths should never fly too close to the flame. They invariably get burned!
Well once again (see The Charm School, Word of Honor, and any of the dozens of his other bestsellers), Nelson DeMille has come up with the ultimate conflict, one so original, so edgy that at times we virtually ruffle the pages to discover—be it John, Susan and or Frank—-who’s doing whom!
Then there’s the dramatic Gold Coast setting, complemented by DeMille’s riveting descriptive passages of land (estates) and sea (John’s a country club sailor).
Ah, lest we forget the kinky Sutter sex. Boys and girls, there are fantasies galore. The one on horseback earns DeMille yet another Page Turner Mamma Mia! And, I should hope an extra bucket of oats for Susan’s steed Zanzibar, who dutifully plays the role of the “rocking” horse.
All this with well layered insights into these two dying breeds—high society and the Mafia. And now (I’m beginning to tire as it is incredibly hard to type and applaud at the same time) all that said, it may just be DeMille’s sardonic dialogue that kicks this one over the top, making the novel so damned compelling.
So, now a Page Turners from the Past welcome to Nelson DeMille’s Gold Coast!
For starters from these DeMille snippets a bit of sardonic dialogue that might best be called: What’s Up With the Sutters.
Susan sometimes surprises me with little flashes of insecurity. If I were a more manipulative man, I would promote this insecurity as a means of keeping her attention, if not her affection. I know she does it to me. I asked “Would you consider living in our East Hampton house?”
“Because I like it here.”
“You like East Hampton,” I pointed out.
“It’s a nice place to spend part of the summer.”
“Why don’t we sail around the world?”
“Why don’t you sail around the world?”
“Good question.” Bitchy, but good. Time to promote insecurity. “I may do that.”
Susan stood. “Better yet, John, why don’t you ask yourself what you’re running from?”
“Don’t get analytical on me, Susan.”
“Then let me tell you what’s bothering you. Your children aren’t home for Easter, your wife is a bitch, your friends are idiots, your job is boring, you dislike my father, you hate Stanhope Hall, the Allards (retired servants who came with the estate ) are getting on your nerves, you’re not rich enough to control events and not poor enough to stop trying. Should I go on?”
“You’re alienated from your parents or vice versa, You’ve had one too many dinners at the club, attractive women don’t take your flirting seriously anymore, life is without challenge, maybe without meaning, and possibly without hope. And nothing is certain but death and taxes. Well, welcome to American upper-middle class middle age, John Sutter.”
“Oh, and lest I forget, a Mafia don has just moved in next door.”
“That might be the only bright spot in this picture.”
“It might well be.”
Susan and I looked at each other, but neither of us explained what we meant by that last exchange. I stood. “I feel better now.”
“Good. You just needed a mental enema.”
While Sutter holes up in his office after a marital spat we see one of John’s issues—jealousy: “At about five P.M., the fax machine dinged, and I walked over to it out of idle curiosity. A piece of that horrible paper slithered out, and I read the handwritten note on it.
All is forgiven. Come home for cold dinner and hot sex.
I looked at the note a moment, then scribbled a reply in disguised handwriting and sent it to my home fax:
John is out of the office, but I’ll give him your message as soon as he returns.
Jeremy Wright is one of the junior partners here. I suppose I was pleased to hear from Susan, though it was not I who needed forgiving. I wasn’t the one rolling around (innocently by the way) in the hay with two college kids and I wasn’t the one who thought Frank Bellarosa was good looking (not so innocently). Also I was annoyed that she would put that sort of thing over the fax. But I was happy to see that she had regained her sense of humor, which had been noticeably lacking recently, unless you count the laughing from the hayloft.
As I was about to walk away from the fax machine, it rang again and another message came though:
Join me for dinner, etc.?
I assumed, of course, that Susan had recognized my handwriting, I replied:
To Know the Sutters Is To Know Their World: “Perhaps it would be instructive to understand the neighborhood into which (“the handsome”) Mr. Frank Bellarosa had chosen to move himself and his family. It is quite simply the best neighborhood in America, making Beverly Hills or Shaker Heights, for instance, seem like tract housing.
It is not a neighborhood in the urban or suburban sense, but a collection of colonial era villages and grand estates in New York’s Long island. The area is locally known as the North Coast, though even realtors wouldn’t say that aloud.
It is an area of old money, old families, old social graces and old ideas about who should be allowed to vote, not to mention who should be allowed to own land. The Gold Coast is not a pastoral Jeffersonian democracy.
To Know Sutter’s Neighbor Is To Know His World: “We drove around the Old Italian section of Williamsburg, which had never been very large, and what was left of Italian Williamsburg seemed rather forlorn.
. . . We left Brooklyn and went into Ozone Park, Queens, which is also an Italian neighborhood. Frank had some relatives there, and we stopped at their row house and played bocci ball in an alleyway with a bunch of his old goombahs who wore baggy pants and three-day whiskers. Then we all drank homemade red wine on a back porch, and it was awful, awful stuff, tannic and sour. But one of the old men put ice in my wine and mixed it with cream soda, of all things. Then he sliced peaches into my glass. Frank had his wine the same way. It was sort of like Italian sangria. I guess, or wine coolers and I had an idea to market the concoction and sell it to trendy places like Buddy’s Hole (Gold Coast) where the clientele could drink it with their grass clippings. Ozone Park Goombah Spritzers. No? Yes?
Here, over drinks and cigars at Bellarosa’s Alhambra estate Frank, giving John an offer he ultimately can’t refuse, tells Sutter how it IS.
“You probably read in the papers that I killed a guy. A Columbian drug dealer.”
This was not your normal Gold Coast brandy-and-cigars talk and I didn’t know quite how to respond, but then I said, “Yes, I did. The papers made you a hero.”
He smiled. “Shows how ____ed up we are. I’m a _____ing hero. Right? I’m smart enough to know better.”
Indeed he was. I was impressed.
He said, “This country is running scared. They want a gunslinger to come in and clean up the ____ing mess. Well, I’m not here to do the government’s job for them.”
I nodded. That was what I had told Mr. Mancuso (the FBI agent who watches Frank’s comings and goings at Alhambra).
Bellarosa added, “Frank Bellarosa works for Frank Bellarosa. Frank Bellarosa takes care of his family and friends. I don’t want anybody thinking I’m part of a solution. I’m definitely part of the problem. Don’t ever think otherwise.”
“I never did.”
“Good. Then we’re off on the right foot.”
“Where are we going?”
But Bellarosa does know and after several more drinks we learn exactly where, as he shares his belief that Alphonse Ferragamo, the U.S. District Attorney is (due to a grudge) framing him for the death of a Colombian drug kingpin, all to have the Colombians bump Frank off, saving Ferragamo and the government the trouble of proving Bellarosa’s guilt in court.
. . . “I need a very upright lawyer to go talk to Ferragamo. He’s the key. He’s got to call one of his press conferences and say that he has new evidence about who hit Carranza, or say he’s got no evidence at all. You talk to him about that.’
“But maybe I don’t believe your side of this.”
“You will when you see Ferragamo’s face after you tell him I know what he’s been up to.”
. . . Frank Bellarosa, whose good instincts had kept him free and alive, perhaps put too much faith in his ability to spot danger, tell friends from enemies, and to read people’s minds and hearts. That was why I was sitting there; because Bellarosa had sized me up in a few minutes and decided I was his man. I wondered if he was right.
Later in a chat at The Creek, Sutter’s exclusive country club, seduction and vulnerability join hands as John makes the fatal mistake of asking the Don for a favor: “I was not in the best of moods, as you may have guessed. I think that having a fight with an IRS man is the mood-altering equivalent of having a fight with your wife, I inquired of Mr. Bellarosa, “So what would you do? Pay the guy off? Threaten to blow his brains out?”
Bellarosa’s eyes widened as though he were shocked by what I’d said, and I found that almost comical. Bellarosa replied. “You never, never hit a federal agent.”
“If you met Mr. Novac, you’d make an exception.”
He smiled but said nothing.
I asked,” So should I bribe him.”
“No, you’re an honest man. Don’t do anything you don’t usually do. It don’t work.” He added. “Anyway, the guy’s probably wired and thinks you are, too.”
. . . Listen, I want the name of your tax lawyer, Frank. Not the one you used when you went up for two years, the one you use now who’s keeping you out of jail!”
The drinks came and Bellarosa dangled the horrible dyed cherry by its stem and bit it off.
“Your tax lawyer,” I prompted.
He chewed on the cherry. “You don’t need no lawyer. Lawyers are for when you gotta go to court. You got to head this off.”
“You got to understand why before you know how.”
“I understand why. I don’t want to fork over three hundred thousand dollars and go to jail for a few years. That’s why.”
“But you got to understand why. Why you don’t want to do that.”
“Because it was an honest mistake.”
“No such thing, pal.”
Sutter goes back to the problem—he owes the IRS over $300,000 for failing to report a profit on a property he’d sold and here, with Bellarosa’s help, he comes up with the real reason why the IRS is on his case. He’s a slick tax attorney who—by knowing how to tiptoe through their mine fields and identify their loop holes—has made a lucrative career by beating the IRS at their own game:.
Bellarosa: “So now you know why. Now you got to talk to Mr. Melzer (Bellarosa’s man), he’ll tell you how.”
Now with a favor asked a favor is owed and Sutter finds himself on a path of no return, one that leads us, with Susan’s “help,” to the incredible climax of The Gold Coast.
In closing I’m reminded that Mr. DeMille (I suspect to entertain himself and his readers while making his points) salted old jokes (John makes Frank laugh) into the dialogue. So, very random here but after turning the last page I recalled an old one. It goes like this.
Frank Sinatra takes Ms. Farrow his (third) bride-to-be home for the first time to meet his mother and presents her with this introduction.
“Mamma! (Pause) . . . Mia!”
Please forgive the skewed context but that, Mr. DeMille, IS how Page Turners from the Past feels about The Gold Coast.
Mamma mia! Whatta novel!
For a copy of The Gold Coast, ask your librarian, order through your independent bookseller or try Amazon.com where you can buy DeMille’s 1990 masterpiece and get a better deal than Frank Bellarosa gave the Sutters when he had his crew move Susan’s horse barn. To order simply click on the book’s cover.
For DeMille’s latest bestseller Radiant Angel, click here.