It's taken me a while to get to it, but right now I'm enjoying the hell out of Jimmy Breslin's brisk, droll The Good Rat, which is, among other things, a kind of summation of a lifetime of crime reporting. I was particularly tickled by this passage on the sloth of the typical gangster:
These people are not attracted to work even in illegitimate places. Sal Reale had his airline workers' union office just outside Kennedy, and it was all right, except he had to hire people highly recommended by the Gambino family. Sal had a list of employees' credentials. Typical was:
"Harry D's son-in-law—$200G"
"Harry D's wife—$150 G"
Each morning the list ruled the office, particularly when work orders started to fill the in baskets.
"The morning starts with sixty-two people in the office," Sal recalls. "By ten o'clock there were twelve people working. We had a lot of paperwork. You had to fill out insurance forms, various federal formseverything you think of that they could put down on paper. We were left with twelve people to do the work. Where did the others go? Here's a woman who gets up, picks up her purse, an walks past me without even nodding. I call after her, 'Couldn't you give us a hand?' She says, 'I was told I didn't have to do any of this work. I have to get my hair done. I'm Paul Vario's cousin.'"
As the Mafia "dissolves," Breslin continues, "you inspect if for what it actually was, grammar-school dropouts who kill each other and purport to live by codes from the hills of Sicily that are either unintelligible or ignored."
It lasted longest in film and print, through the false drama of victims' being shot gloriously with machine guns but without the usual exit wounds the size of a soup plate. The great interest in the Mafia was the result of its members being so outrageously disdainful of all rules that just the sight of a mobster caused gleeful whispers. Somebody writing for a living could find it extremely difficult to ignore them
The Mafia became part of public belief because of movie stars who were Jewish. This dark fame began with Paul Muni playing Al Capone. After that came Edward G. Robinson, Tony Curtis, Lee Strasberg, Alan King, and on and on, part of an entire industry of writers, editors, cameramen, directors, gofers, lighting men, sound men, location men, casting agents—all on the job and the payroll because of the Mafia. Finally two great actors, Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, put a vowel in there.
One could cinephile-nitpick, but the core conceit is sound. What's interesting to my mind is that The Godfather doesn't turn into anything less than a great film even with the knowledge that its core assumptions as they pertain to the reality that inspired it are, as it happens, utter horseshit. And I think Breslin understands that too. And even the mob movie that comes closest to showing "grammar school dropouts who kill each other," Scorsese's Goodfellas, can't quite scrub its characters clean of the movie-star veneer of a certain glamour that they carry. Part of the glamour, of course, is embedded in the wickedness of their actions: the outrageous disdain for the rules that so appeals, in a sense, to some part of all our ids. It's refreshing that Breslin has the good sense to call the popular culture depiction of mobsters out, but not get into much of a lather over it.