Book note: “Crossing Hoffa” in Minnesota


Nobody knows what exactly became of Jimmy Hoffa, but everyone knows the basic story: Hoffa, a Teamster union leader, got way too big for his britches and shot his mouth off once too often, threatening to expose mobster corruption in the labor union—so the Mafia silenced him.

Crossing Hoffa: A Teamster’s Story by Steven J. Harper, published by Borealis Books (2007). $24.95.

In Crossing Hoffa: A Teamster’s Story, Steven J. Harper looks at Hoffa from an interesting vantage point: his father, it happens, was a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters who, like the title says, crossed swords with power freak Jimmy Hoffa. His writing style is not going to set a fire under you, but it won’t put you to sleep, either. Ultimately, Harper’s subjects—Hoffa and Harper’s father Jim—carry the ball.

They don’t do a half-bad job of it, either. Despite the occasionally plodding text, Jim Harper emerges quite clearly as a fella neither Jimmy Hoffa nor anyone else particularly cared to go up against. He was shrewd (a con man, in fact, in his early days), charismatic, and forceful. It’s ironic, but hardly surprising, that he originally admired Hoffa. In taking on the corrupt leadership at Minneapolis Local 544, he was pretty much following in his hero’s footsteps; that, after all, is exactly how Hoffa bulled his way to prominence, kicking out the old rascals so he could situate himself as the new head rascal. That’s where Jimmy Hoffa and Jim Harper diverge. Hoffa was a maniacal slob who trotted out a halo to his constituency—the working bastards whose wages made the mob rich—and, when their backs were turned, made deals with the devil. Harper was not bullshitting around. The con man had turned over a new leaf: he was elected to empower the union and his men, not screw them over. This is what set these guys on a collision path that got very ugly. Twice, behind the wheel of his fully loaded truck, Harper found himself pumping the brakes only to learn they’d been sabotaged. Things get painful, as well, as the harder this rehabilitated crook fights for good, the tougher the struggle gets…to the point where he has to deal with Hoffa in front of him and back-stabbing officials behind him.

Thankfully, the closer the book gets to their showdown, the more economic Harper’s writing gets—and the stronger the tale becomes. Hold on to your ass when the you-know-what finally—and irrevocably—hits the fan between Jim Harper and Jimmy Hoffa.

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.