By Nick Tosches

Ecco. 318 pp. $25.95

Several years ago, I reviewed "Dino," a biography of pop singer Dean Martin written by Nick Tosches. It was a fairly unpleasant experience, like watching somebody squash a potato bug with a jackhammer. The author used the singer as a vehicle to sneer at the creepiness of the American underworld while methodically mining that same underworld for material. So what made him any better than the people he was condemning? Tosches's prose style, while admired by many, tended -- and still does tend -- toward the Henry Milleresque rant-and-rave. (Remember how Miller used to go off for pages at a time on the criminology of American white bread or the inhumanity of working for the semifictional "Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company"?) It's the kind of writing that looks radical but is actually very safe: Who among us does not despise leeching relatives, the vulgarization of popular culture, lazy women who live off alimony, or the current administration -- whatever that administration may be? Tosches, then as now, makes his living off being crabby, like your Uncle Fred after his seventh Scotch.

"King of the Jews," a biography not of Jesus but of the well-known New York gangster Arnold Rothstein, seems at first to follow Tosches's standard pattern: pick a scumball; trash him mercilessly for 300 pages or so while throwing in diatribes about how America is dead and the hypocrites rule and the life has gone out of old New York; decorate the whole thing with gross-out stuff about weasels killing rats in gambling dens and about how the police are (invariably) more crooked than the crooks they work hand in hand with. Then freely confess your own complicity in this festering crock of malfeasance we call civilization: "His name was Arnold Rothstein, and he himself was the only God he worshipped, and he was a great and sinful man. I . . . am not here to make praise-song of this man. . . . I am here -- like him, like us all -- to make a buck."

But this book turns out to be more complex than that, thank God. Tosches takes as his antihero a very big financier-crook -- for those who are too young to remember the '20s or who haven't read "The Great Gatsby," a man reputed to have "fixed" the World Series in 1919, who in 1921 made more money ($800,000) betting on a single race than any other American in recorded history and who was enthusiastically involved in the heroin trade until his untimely death by gunshot in his forties. He hung out with men like Louis the Lump, Nine-Eyed Donigan and Six-Fingered Murphy and mentored a new gangster-generation of guys like Frank Costello, Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, teaching them table manners, how to dress and how to hold out a chair for a lady, as well as the ins and outs of arcane crime. Rothstein was "bad," and he was a legend.

But as Tosches worked on the biography, he found that most of the "facts" of Rothstein's life were lies. Rothstein's father, widely known as "Abe the Just," was just an ordinary immigrant who sewed caps and spent the last part of his life contesting his son's will. (Tosches devotes several chapters to this, meaning to show, evidently, that greed strikes often and in unexpected places.) Rothstein's wife wrote an autobiography that turned out to be a pack of lies. Time after time, Tosches straight-facedly writes down a story or set of anecdotes only to retract them, reminding us that most history is just lies repeated often enough to lodge themselves in the public consciousness.

This leads the author to a couple of compare-and-contrast essays on the nature of good and evil: How bad was Rothstein, Tosches asks rhetorically, compared with the people who thought up the death camps of World War II, the nuclear bomb, "shock and awe" or PowerBars? Or, for that matter, the folks who got together and invented those monotheistic religions -- all three of them -- that will probably end up being the death of us all?

Really, poor Rothstein seems more and more like a rag doll that Tosches waves from time to time as he ruminates upon the nature of life. The gangster doesn't even get born here until Page 191. Then, around Page 242, the author pretty much bags it and takes time to remember an old friend, dead now; to mourn, once again, the demise of America; to scorn, once again, the degradation of American culture. Poor Rothstein ends up caricatured as good old reliable Nathan Detroit from "Guys and Dolls."

"All I meant to say," Tosches writes wistfully, "is that words, writing, meant a lot to me when I was young, and now that I am old, they mean even more." And Tosches puts down his metaphorical seventh Scotch, stands up, stretches and looks out the window. "Life is all that we have," he adjures us, "and we must live it, for real: like leopards, like beautiful creatures." And by the beauty of that sentence, and others like it, he totally redeems the book.