Staten Island, New York, is a sombre place as islands go, but it has managed to cast some spells. Once upon a time there was a Prospero there in the shape of Marius Bewley, literary critic, Anglophile and Adlai Stevensonian, who held court among his cats in a Gothic villa above the ferry terminal, where crowds would leave for work in their instalments, churning past the Statue of Liberty towards the Wall Street skyline. Many of these people were descendants of the weary masses summoned by Liberty from their hard times in Europe; and many of them have since been diverted across the Verrazano Bridge, by car, to Brooklyn. Up the road from Marius’s villa, moreover, in the years that followed, there came to live, with his Dobermans, a fairy godfather – of the kind that used to be seen as the immigrant’s friend – and in Marius’s time, too, there were indications, sounds and airs, that the black magic of the Mafia was known to the island.
Paul Castellano was a Staten Island householder who can rarely have set foot on the ferry and who was eventually to stay at home, save for the occasional progress by limousine across the bridge. The mansion he lived in, nicknamed the White House, stood on top of the highest hill in the vicinity of Manhattan. He was the Godfather of the Gambino Family of the Cosa Nostra, having succeeded to the throne as a cousin, married to the sister-in-law, of Carlo Gambino, who had in his day been considered one of the most resourceful of Mafia dons or capos. In 1985, after being charged with racketeering offences and then bailed, he was shot dead by four gunmen from a faction within the Gambino Family. His spell had begun to fade. His proscription of drug-dealing had displeased confederates, and his commitment to the rest of the Gambino rackets, which were chiefly in the area of labour and food distribution, appears to have declined. He had taken as a mistress his Colombian maid, Gloria Olarte, a woman said to have been stunned and silenced by a rape during her adolescence, who contributes to the book a strong presence and a habit of talking about herself in the third person, and in a Latin American English roguishly transliterated here; and he was presently to expel his wife from the mansion. These last aberrations are thought to have further displeased his followers, with their extra-mural mistresses. Meanwhile the mansion had been bugged by the authors of the book, agents of the FBI. Attracted, we are given to understand, by Agent O’Brien’s blue eyes, Gloria was to assist the police, a leetle, with their enquiries.
O’Brien and Kurins also talk about themselves in the third person. They make good use of their experience of Mafia practice, though they might have been rather less sparing with material based on the transcripts obtained from the bug they screwed into a table-lamp in the space next to the kitchen where Castellano chose to do his don’s business. From a hostile and triumphal standpoint, their sharp-witted book presents a picture which complements the insider accounts available in Scorsese’s Mafia films. Omerta, the code of honour with its injunction to secrecy, has been breached over the years, but these descriptions and transcriptions are among the most informative of the testaments and exposés I have read. There is much that remains dark – which will not cruelly disappoint those who feel, as there is reason to do, that O’Brien and Kurins can be commended for not telling what they are not certain of, while also, no doubt, refraining from telling what they are, or have been, persuaded they should be silent about.
Mafia-watchers, intent on the American thing and on its Italian counterpart (thousands of Mafia detainees have recently been set free in Italy, on technical grounds), have sometimes been struck by a resemblance to the IRA. Both organisations employ terror and originate in forms of subjection. They have both received both the blessing and the curse of the Roman Catholic priesthood. Both thrive on fear and favour. Both assert an ethnic claim within the boundaries of an alien state. Both constitute secret or hidden governments whose operations are obvious to the world but are hard to indict and to restrain. Their leaders are thoroughly known but are not often imprisoned. The leaders of the IRA pursue subversive political aims to a degree not found among Mafia bosses in America, who may even be portrayed at times as American patriots; and they have not enriched themselves. But that might come. One day, just foreseeably, the IRA may be ancient and affluent.
Books and films about Mafia episodes tend to register a triumph for law and order. Keen, clean investigators, happily married men whose families are exposed to vengeance, see off the dagos, and at the end of each episode the end of a vast criminal conspiracy is in sight. There is no FBI quite as good as the one that gets into books and films. The present book is not exceptional in this respect: it boasts a bit, and it suggests that a crucial sector of a vast conspiracy has ended in disarray. Few readers will conclude that the Cosa Nostra is a thing of the past. But it does seem to be the case that the US Government’s efforts to attack the organisation have had their successes over the twenty years since RICO – the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organisations Act – brought an extension of Federal powers and made it easier to prepare cases that would stand up in court. The investigations described in the book benefited from the statute, with the Brooklyn FBI devising approaches of its own in which O’Brien and Kurins were involved.
One of these approaches consisted of the endearingly straightforward RH (for Wreak Havoc). This meant sending birthday cards to criminal bosses and asking Mafia soldiers what they were up to. The approach was tried with Tommy Agro, who was accosted in a night-club and asked what he was up to. When Agro arrived there was
a commotion at the door. The maître d’ flitted over, practically flapping his arms in his eagerness to please. He was flanked by two of the brawnier waiters, who in turn were flanked by two of the leggier cocktail waitresses. Together, this flock of employees formed a flying wedge that sliced right through the cluster of customers who had been suffering in silence, politely waiting their turn to be seated. When the ripples that ran through the crowd had subsided, the welcoming committee ushered in a smiling, pudgy little man. He was immaculately dressed in a midnight-blue mohair suit. He was manicured. His face shone like a polished apple. Most resplendent of all, his jet-black toupee was so sleek it reflected the flashing disco lights, creating the bizarre effect of sparks coming out of the dapper little fellow’s head.
It turns out that Agro is ailing: ‘Look at all this fucking shit I gotta take.’ His medication is displayed:
‘This is the lithium,’ he went on, picking up a bottle that had fallen on its side and rolled across the table. ‘This is so I don’t go fucking nuts and start handing out hundred-dollar bills outside the Midtown Tunnel. This one here is for my lungs. They fill up with water every time I lay down, and when I try to breathe, it’s like I’m fucking drowning. These two are for my goddamn heart. The docs showed me a graph of it – it looked like the fucking stock market.’
Agro the sadistic enforcer was later forced to go on the run from justice, thereby darkly accelerating Castellano’s downfall.
The Agro portrait is one of a number of vivid evocations of what he and the others did with themselves. At the same time, it is proposed, with relish, that many led dull lives:
You wake up around noon, and meet Vinnie and Frank for an espresso. Vinnie and Frank have to meet Tony and Pete, so you drive all the way to Staten Island and have another cup of coffee. Tony and Pete don’t show. So you drag yourself all the way to Queens to see another guy about a couple truckloads of stolen microwaves. But before you can agree on a price, you’ve got to make some phone calls. You can only use a pay phone, so first you’ve got to find one that works, and then you can hardly hear what the person on the other end is saying, because some jerk’s car alarm is going off. By this time it’s dark. You go home to wash your armpits and change your shirt. You talk about what to have for dinner and where you want to have it But it turns out that someone you don’t want to see is also eating there, you have to go someplace else. By now you’ve got a stomach-ache from all the espresso and cigarettes and no food ...
Mafia humour is not a promising subject, and one of the few specimens quoted here is borrowed from the Bonanno Family, a member of which, taxed with a shipment of what was suspected to be horsemeat, replied: ‘Well, some of it moos, and some of it don’t moo.’ The language of the Cosa Nostra, as recorded in this book and in some adjacent books and films, is one of few words, recurrent sounds, double meanings, and apt and allusive names. It buzzes with the rhyme scheme ‘fuck’, ‘thug’, ‘mug’, ‘bug’ and ‘rug’: the worries and aggressions of machismo are evident in what is said, and said again, and if this book is to be trusted, machismo is accustomed to wearing a disastrous wig. Castellano’s castello had its bug planted in it at a time when he himself suffered a penile implant to overcome difficulties caused by his diabetes. Such apt names, echoes and replications have something of the effect of a series of puns, which recall the narrowness and boundedness of the way of life of the old Sicilian Mafia enclaves. Here are people who are meant to do what they are told, and who do what they are called, whose one word may join together bleak meanings of a related kind. The Mafia and its language, you might say, are a copulation of cousins.
The names – not many of which are invented, presumably, though some appear to be pseudonymous or assumed – include Funzie Mosca, Vincente Gigante, Paul Castellano of Todt Hill, Joe Gallo, and Joe (‘Piney’) Armone, who saw to it in the good old days that Christmas trees were distributed to the poor. You half-expect to turn the page and find a Volpone or a Spiro Agnew. There is a Frank Spero, but he is a cop, while Spiro Agnew was a crook, and a Vice-President of the United States of America.
Armone is a comparatively virtuous figure for the writers of the book: a Family man but also a family man, no truck with mistresses of either the acceptable or unacceptable sort, a man whose speech is rated as ‘Mob Shakespearean’, though ‘not necessarily grammatical’. There doesn’t, in fact, seem to be anything wrong with his grammar. He is soon heard by his eavesdroppers to say:
‘It’s unfortunate, but it’s manageable. And in the meantime, everything else is status quo. The boys all send you their best.’
‘They send me anything else?’ Paul Castellano asked
‘Oh yeah,’ said Piney, as if it was an afterthought. A light slapping sound came through Joe O’Brien’s and Andy Kurins’ headsets – the sound, it seemed, of a small parcel being dropped onto the long blond table. ‘There’s nine thousand in the envelope’.
Marius Bewley would hardly have minded saying most of that.
The eavesdroppers think even more highly of the Boss. ‘There was a greatness about Paul Castellano.’ Oh yeah? There often is a greatness about bosses, even when you are trying to bring them down. Castellano seems to have been a sympathetic man in some ways, but he does nothing that would count as wise or brilliant, and quite a lot that might count, in one of Armone’s words, as ‘unfortunate’. His own words, moreover, are not all that great. ‘I read that article in the Miami newspaper,’ Armone reported to him. ‘About Tommy Agro. And the fact is, Paul, there is going to be a lot of heat this spring.’ ‘ “Fuck,” said the Godfather’.
The Mafia and its media representations have long been, at one level, the same thing. This book has it that Mafia soldiers watch the operatic Godfather films, and seek to behave like the soldiers on the screen. Scorsese’s inward and abrasive accounts, which are accounts of people with whom he grew up, are likely to be popular, too, in the same quarter. The more fastidious gangsters, such as Castellano, may be inclined to draw the line at this or that representation, like literary critics: we learn here, at any rate, that this godfather couldn’t be bothered with the memoirs of another, Joe Bonanno. Castellano was wrong about that, as critics occasionally are about that sort of thing. Bonanno’s book, published in Britain in 1983, is interesting.
Ghosted or assisted it may have been, but so was Churchill’s history of the Second World War, whose subject-matter could be deemed not altogether different from Bonanno’s. The language of his book is remote from the one I have been characterising. This is the work of a thoughtful and cultivated man, while also the work of a tribal, paternal, wife-worshipping old-style Sicilian man of honour. Early days were spent at Castellammare del Golfo in Sicily, where he discovered that the word mafioso could be applied to horses as well as to men of honour, and meant ‘spirited, brave, keen, beautiful, vibrant and alive’. He came to the fore in New York during the inter-Sicilian carnage and betrayal of the Castellammarese war of the early Thirties, and as father of his family (no mere ‘boss’) moved to the apex of a way of life ‘which precedes the formation of city-states and later of nations’. After the Castellammarese war this ancientness became Americanised, with the rise of leaders like Luciano. Mafia and America were getting married. Many years on, Bonanno retired to Tucson with his Doberman, Greasy, to inform the readers of his memoirs that they would ‘learn not only about me but also about yourselves and the society in which we live’.
The Mafia-media show is a show in which investigators may take part, and in which O’Brien and Kurins take part. The celebrated car chase in the first French Connection film may have made an impression on O’Brien: he can even look like an upmarket version of the frantic, hard-nosed detective of that chase, who hijacks a car and races it against a subway train carrying an evil drug-dealer. It seemed bad enough to at least one viewer of the film that several deaths should be risked in the dash to achieve an arrest, which concludes with the death not only of the drug-dealer but of someone else who just happened to be around. These dashes are a standard feature of Mafia fictions, and both in America and now in Britain they are also frequent enough in fact, with a rather higher casualty rate than fiction allows. This, too, could be called wreaking havoc, this indifference to bystanders on the part both of the drivers of getaway cars and of their hot pursuers, and in sections of the police forces of both countries I suppose it must be a career-friendly way of going on.
Joe O’Brien has won an important award for his keen work as a detective. So keen is he in the book to interview a bent business magnate that he launches himself across the street with his lunch in his hand, is hit by a car, but struggles into a posh hotel to conduct a not very fruitful interview. He also tails a hoodlum in a car which is chased in turn by the New York Police Department. Big Gus, the hoodlum, was being watched at the time, but it was no big deal; no arrest was in mind. Speed was indicated but abandoned: O’Brien’s inert and uninspiring immediate superior (another standard presence) ‘would wince if O’Brien ran somebody over. The city might get testy about federal agents tearing up the streets.’
The convergences between American crime and American legitimacy, between the two White Houses, is not a subject which is explored here to the point at which it might have been remarked that the bugging of Castellano’s castle yielded transcripts that resemble the Watergate tapes. President Nixon’s expletives may have been deleted when the tapes were played, but he sounded like a godfather, and acted like one in the transactions that were talked about on tape. It may be that America expects that its second government will sometimes be apparent in the behaviour of its first, and of its politicians. Very little surprise was expressed when it emerged that President Kennedy had shared a girlfriend with a Mafia boss, or that his soldiers had handed out bribes in the West Virginia Primary that helped to make him President.
How good was the Mafia at being the Mafia, over the years in question? You’d think that they must have been better than the book conveys. Below the level of capo and consigliere, where Castellano and astute men like Joe Armone and Joe Gallo were encountered, there opens up a scene suggestive of disturbed, deceitful bewigged lashers-out with baseball bats, who couldn’t always be relied on, you’d imagine, to pick up the right bag or deliver an envelope with the right amount of money inside. And yet the Mafia, we may take it, survives. O’Brien and Kurins enable you to think that one of the reasons why it survives is that it makes sense, and is of service, to the community at large, to the society in which Joe Bonanno’s readers live, and that it is protected by the legal system which is set to prevent it: the book leaves no doubt that Liberty’s huge population of lawyers has done much to preserve the organisation. When Joe Gallo calls attention in the book to the scams committed by legitimacy, he is referring to favours enjoyed by a small section of privileged people outside the Italian community: he does not mention that legitimacy has scams which coincide with his own, that the CIA, for example, has sometimes been reckoned to coincide with the Cosa Nostra. The Mafia are more than outlaws, that is to say. They have long since come in from the cold. And this could be why they may well continue to see off the law-enforcers, while holding out against the growing strength of rival gangs from other ethnic groups, whose access to legitimacy is comparatively undeveloped.