March 13, 2005

What I’ve Learned from Mob Books

Over the past couple months, I’ve read the following books about the Mafia: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Mafia by Jerry Capeci; For the Sins of My Father by Albert DeMeo; The Underboss by Sammy “the Bull” Gravano; and Donnie Brasco and The Way of the Wiseguy by Joe Pistone. Not only have these books been entertaining, but they’ve also been quite educational. Here are some of my findings.

(1) The Godfather is a faulty portrayal of the Mafia. The Godfather remains one of my favorite movies of all-time. But I’ve learned that real-life mobsters are nothing like Vito and Michael Corleone. Vito and Michael are portrayed as noble, although flawed, men. Real wiseguys, on the other hand, are generally complete and total degenerates. They’re not men of honor; their greatest concern is making money and they’ll commit any crime, no matter how reprehensible, to do so. They’re not men of loyalty; they’ll betray their closest friends to save their own necks. And they’re anything but intelligent and introspective; they’re some of the most ignorant individuals you’d ever want to meet.

The Godfather is so great because it’s a story about people like you and me—good yet flawed individuals. If it were more realistic, we’d turn it off halfway into the first act, finding ourselves repulsed by the characters and unable to sympathize with them.

(2) GoodFellas paints an accurate picture of life in the Mafia.
The movie tells the real-life story of Luchese family associate Henry Hill and, according to everything I’ve read, nails the essence of mob life. The film is drenched with violence and blood. It shows how quickly your associates will turn on you and even kill you to save themselves. It shows how impulsive and mean-spirited and irrational some of these people are. And, although it shows why some men find the life of a wiseguy so attractive, it also shows that such a life never ends happily; wiseguys either end up murdered or in jail or as FBI informants who must leave friends and family to go into the witness protection agency.

(3) Donnie Brasco gets its facts wrong. I still think this is a great movie, but I found it interesting to learn that it contradicts many of the claims made by Joe Pistone, the real Donnie Brasco. For example, Pistone claims that he never found himself sympathizing with the Mafia and questioning to whom his loyalty belonged. In the movie, of course, Joe has an identity crisis and almost betrays the FBI.

(4) There are some good things about wiseguys. If you’re looking for a role model, you’d do good to look outside the Mafia. But that said, I think there are some things that we can learn from wiseguys. First of all, these men tend to hold women in a fairly high regard. Yeah, I realize that a lot of wiseguys cheat on their wives, but still, wiseguys usually refrain from cursing and telling dirty jokes around women. And they almost always love their mothers. Second, wiseguys tend to place great value on family and community, devoting much attention to their families and neighbors. In our age of extreme individualism, we would do well to follow the wiseguy’s lead in this regard.

Third, many wiseguys are great storytellers. Given high illiteracy rates, the first Italian-American communities were largely oral cultures and, correspondingly, many of its people were wonderful storytellers. This tradition continues today and many wiseguys, if nothing else, are fun to listen to. Fourth, wiseguys are courageous. A wiseguy won’t back down from a fight and he’ll do whatever it takes, no matter how dangerous, to get what he wants. Although misdirected courage is a vice, courage accompanied with good motives is a tremendous virtue, a virtue that many of us lack.