First published in 1930, Scarface tells the story of Tony Guarino. Tony was an 18 year-old hoodlum, working his way through the Chicago rackets. Unfortunately, for Tony, he started to draw too much attention from the cops and his gangster boss told Tony to stop hanging around so much. Miffed, Tony decided to join the Army.
Tony served with a valor in World War I. He was natural leader and had no hesitation when it came to killing people. He was “a good soldier,” as the novel puts it. When he’s wounded in battle, he’s left with a facial scar that changes his appearance to the extent that even his own family doesn’t recognize him when he returns to Chicago. Of course, due to a clerical mistake, they also think that Tony’s dead. After killing his former mistress and her new lover, Tony somewhat randomly decides to change his name to Tony Camonte and take over the Chicago underworld.
He gets a job working for Johnny Love. Scarface Tony, as he is called now, works his way up. Soon, Tony is in charge of the Lovo mob and he even has a girlfriend, a former “gun girl” named Jane. Unfortunately, Tony also has a lot of enemies. Captain Flanagan may take Tony’s money but he still wants to put Tony behind bars. The DA may take Tony’s money but he still wants to put Tony behind bars. The cops way take Tony’s money but …. well, okay, you get the idea. Tony can’t trust anyone. Complicating things is that his older brother is moving his way up in the police force and his younger sister has been hanging out with Tony’s main gunman. And there’s a new gang boss in town. His nickname is Schemer. You know he has to be bad with a nickname like that!
I read Scarface yesterday. It’s only 181 pages long and it’s a quick read. It’s also not a particularly well-written book. The prose is often clunky. The dialogue is awkward. Tony really doesn’t have any motivation beyond the fact that he’s a jerk. We’re continually told that Tony has become one of the most powerful gangsters in the country but we don’t really see any evidence of it. One of the basic rules is that it’s better to show than to tell and this novel is all about telling instead of showing. What there is of a plot feels like it was made up on the spot. For instance, with the exception of an off-hand mention of her in the first chapter, the character of Tony’s sister doesn’t even figure into the story until it is nearly done and, yet, the story’s conclusion pretty much hinges on her existence. Though not as well-written, Scarface is still a bit like The Epic of Gilgamesh. Writer Armitage Trail just kept coming up with complications until he finally ran out of tablets and had no choice but to abruptly end things.
That said, the book is notable in that it served as the inspiration for Howard Hawks’s 1932 film, Scarface. The Hawks film, which only loosely follows the plot of Trail’s book and which wisely abandons some of the less credible plot points, would later be remade by Brian De Palma, with Al Pacino stepping into the role of Tony.
And the rest, as they say, is history.