RIDE A TIGER, by Harold Livingston (Morrow: $18.95; 611 pp.). What’s a nice Jewish boy like Leo Gorodetsky doing running around with that sort of crowd? That “crowd,” of course, being the Mafia with its historic distrust of anyone with no ties to Palermo. A big, sprawling novel that embraces the Depression, Prohibition, World War I and II, organized crime’s romance with Cuba’s Fulgencio Batista, and the post-war mushrooming of Las Vegas as the brightest jewel in the Mafia’s crown, “Ride a Tiger” is still essentially the biography of Leo, the teen-age manager of neighborhood crap games on New York’s Lower East Side and his rise to the highest councils of the Mafia.
Brilliant and loyal to his friends, Leo is a fascinating character study of a man too knowledgeable in areas where the Mafia was weak, and too skilled, himself, in the deadly areas where the Mafia excelled, for the Brotherhood to either ignore or destroy him. For Leo and his old, trusted friends, Harry Wise and Sal Bracci, it is a delicate and deadly fence-walking, as, periodically, the always fragile Jewish/Sicilian coalition threatens to explode. Livingston is a whale of a storyteller, and it is literally impossible not to get emotionally involved with this fascinating, multifaceted protagonist--a man who desperately wants to be a good family man but doesn’t quite know how. Who loves, but either too much, not enough or too unwisely.