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ALEX BEAM

Southie's fame: Who's to blame?

Martin Scorsese's next movie, which will soon begin shooting in Toronto, will be set in South Boston. Cable channel Showtime has commissioned a series -- originally titled ''Southie," now ''Brotherhood" -- loosely based on the irresistible Cain and Abel story of former state Senate president William Bulger and his fugitive brother, Whitey.

This month, Jay Atkinson will publish ''Legends of Winter Hill: Cops, Con Men, and Joe McCain, the Last Real Detective," the latest in a long line of books attempting to cash in on the public fascination with the Bulger mystique and Boston's colorful hoodlum underworld.

The city of Boston, it says in Wayne Coffey's book ''The Boys of Winter," is smaller than the Denver airport. That would make South Boston about the size of the Frontier Airlines terminal. So how did this flyspeck on the map suddenly assume the media cachet of Ernest Hemingway's Paris, or James Joyce's Dublin?

Of course, the Bulger brothers deserve a great deal of the credit. Starting with a 1988 Globe Spotlight series, the tale of the savvy Irish pol and his gangster brother whose mug adorned the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List gradually filtered out to the heartland. The story was impossibly alluring: Straight-arrow bro stands up for prodigal sibling. Other leitmotifs surfaced. In Southie myth, the System is irredeemably corrupt and stacked against the little (Irish) guy. The alliance between Whitey and the FBI went a long way to proving this myth true.

Following the Spotlight series, The New Yorker parachuted Richard Brookhiser into Boston's terra incognita to write about the Bulgers' colorful Southie Neverland: ''Many of the houses, some brick, some wooden three-deckers, flew American flags and Irish tricolors. . . . The streets were thick with redheads." Don't send this man to Galway. He might suffer from sensory overload.

CBS's ''60 Minutes," which knows box office, has run three Bulger/Southie-related features since 1992. Stereotypes abound: William is ''the little Irishman from Southie . . . a man of simple tastes . . . the educated classicist who does not own a television," whose moral probity is defended by former Globe columnist Mike Barnicle. Whitey is the ''reputed killer, bank robber, and drug trafficker" who has led the FBI on a merry dance for decades.

It may have been two Cambridge boys, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who gave South Boston its biggest media boost in their Oscar-winning movie, ''Good Will Hunting." Damon plays triple-decker denizen Will, ''the boy genius from South Boston." An early scene features a Southie welcome for a cadre of Italian interlopers: The visitors get a beating, Damon/Hunting gets a jail sentence.

Here is another enduring leitmotif: Southie as a political correctness-free zone. Everyone is the enemy: the Italians, the cops, the blacks, the WASPs, the stiffs who work for the Globe. Free speech is about the freedom to lob a few F-bombs. ''The worst thing about minding [my half-brother] Seamus," wrote Michael Patrick MacDonald in his 1999 Southie memoir, ''All Souls," ''was when I'd hear a neighbor down the street calling someone a [expletive] or a [expletive]. I couldn't believe they'd say those words in front of a baby."

''All Souls," now firmly ensconced on high school and college reading lists, paved the way for a mini-tsunami of Southie books: ''Black Mass: The Irish Mob, the FBI, and a Devil's Deal," by former Globe writers Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill; ''Deadly Alliance: The FBI's Secret Partnership With the Mob," by the Globe's Ralph Ranalli; ''Street Soldier: My Life as an Enforcer for Whitey Bulger and the Boston Irish Mob," by Edward J. Mackenzie; and the recent ''Boyos," by Richard Marinick. I won't make any qualitative judgments; I have few enough friends as is.

Even books and movies that don't take place in South Boston, like ''Next Stop, Wonderland" and ''Monument Square," might as well take place there. Dennis Lehane's novels generally unwind in Dorchester, not Southie, but the book and movie ''Mystic River" -- set in the fictional ''Flats" -- have certainly stoked the Southie mystique.

To outlanders, the differences among Charlestown, South Boston, and Dorchester are distinctions without a difference. We are all from Southie now.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.

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