If Jimmy Breslin's "The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutierrez" had an unknown author's name on it, it would be hailed as the work of an up-and-coming star. Breslin has been around a long time -- as sportswriter (his book about the '62 Mets, "Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?" was one of the first baseball books I ever read), reporter, populist-minded columnist, television commentator, would-be politician (Remember his 1968 New York mayoral campaign with Norman Mailer? Their slogan: "No more bullshit"), novelist and sometime media star (the only Pulitzer Prize winner ever to host "Saturday Night Live").
As a result, we've come to take him for granted ... No, actually that's not true. It's Breslin who in recent years has taken Breslin for granted. "The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutierrez" is a return to form, a full fleshing-out of the kind of piece (his legendary interview with John F. Kennedy's gravedigger immediately jumps to mind) that made Breslin famous before celebrity overcame him and the indignation in his columns became something that he e-mailed in.
In November 1999, Eduardo Gutierrez, an 18-year-old illegal immigrant from Mexico, was accidentally killed when the structure he was working on collapsed. The incident might have been quickly forgotten except for the particularly gruesome manner in which Gutierrez died: He drowned in a vat of concrete. While Gutierrez and other construction workers struggled in the quicksand-like cement that had at first broken their fall and briefly saved their lives, The pump kept pouring concrete down, the thickest of gray rains. The workers were stuck in it. As it covered the chests of the workers, it started to flatten them and stifle their breathing. If one exhaled, the weight of the concrete on his chest prevented him from inhaling again."
The surviving workers "were in wet concrete up to their thighs and could barely move. They began to try to remove people by first bending forward with their arms stretched out and digging at the wet concrete with their hands ... Dig it and shove it to make a clearing around the body. As they made this clearing, the concrete came back like a heartless tide. They kept pushing the concrete ... The concrete parted under Kayen's hands and he saw a prize, a belt with a big buckle. The buckle was covered with concrete, but it had a greater value than any medallion ever struck for royalty. This was a buckle you could grab and pull up, and he raised the body of a mauled human out of the sucking concrete just enough to let him live."
Eduardo Gutierrez didn't own a belt buckle.
Something in Breslin caught fire when he arrived at Newsday that morning and heard of Gutierrez's death. "I thought of a novel," Breslin recently told an interviewer. "Seems like a strange thing to think of at the time, but this book made a huge impression on me. It was published in 1937 and called 'Christ in Concrete' by a guy named Pietro di Donato." Di Donato's cult classic is about an Italian immigrant worker who drowns in concrete in a construction mishap.
Breslin was at the site of Gutierrez's accident like a shot; he didn't let up until he had tracked the boy's path back through the underground railroad of illegal immigration to his village of San Matias, Mexico. Then he followed another path from the accident, this time to the slackness and hypocrisy of the Giuliani administration through the mob-influenced construction bureaucracy that made the death of Eduardo Gutierrez -- or some other Mexican or Dominican or Russian or Czech -- inevitable.
Breslin's dedication has kept Eduardo's story from being buried in the concrete of statistics: In a 280-mile stretch of desert in Arizona, 387,406 Mexicans were intercepted in 1998 alone. The next year, there were more than 470,000, a greater number than the population of the booming city of Tucson. An average of nearly 500 a year don't make it as far as Eduardo Gutierrez did; they leave their bones on the tarantula- and scorpion-infested plains.
As you might expect, Breslin handles the unholy mix of New York's business, crime and ethnic lobbies with the deftness of the Yankees in a tight playoff game. The revelation of "Eduardo Gutierrez" is how quickly and thoroughly Breslin makes us feel the twilight world of the Southwestern border with its "coyotes" (agents who target small-town Mexicans looking to cross to the U.S. in hope of finding a better life), sympathetic but uneasy Anglo ranchers and a completely overwhelmed legal system -- nearly 25 percent of the United States' entire criminal caseload is taken up by people who have committed no greater crime than crossing a desert.
After years of imitating his own early voice, Jimmy Breslin has, out of nowhere, conjured up a great book. "The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutierrez" reads as if it were written in a cold fury and it lingers in the mind with the moral satisfaction of a promise kept.