Monday, February 15, 2010

"Wiseguy" by Nicholas Pileggi


Nicholas Pileggi's "Wiseguy: Life In A Mafia Family". This, of course, was the book on which the movie "Goodfellas" was based; it's about Henry Hill, an Irish - American hoodlum who manages to work his way up in the Italian - American controlled Mafia, only to ultimately "flip".
Much of the book is merely transcripts of interviews with Hill and his wife as they recount their early life, courtship and downfall once the "success" of mobster life overcomes them both. Later on, Pileggi adds more narrative and commentary, but by then, it's a little too late -- Hill's voice and perspective are so deeply imbued by that point, there's not too much that the author can do to wrest control from Hill, who so clearly emerges as the real star of the book ... simply because it is his story in the first place. (And a most fascinating story it is)
So what made me read this book? Perhaps it was the fact that I'd just finished Tony Bourdain's "Bone In The Throat" a few weeks prior (a novel about the mob). Perhaps it was the fact that I'm longing for "The Sopranos". Perhaps it was because I was a big fan of the movie, "Goodfellas". Or perhaps it was due to the fact that a co - worker of mine had given me this book years ago and I never got around to reading it until now. Better yet, perhaps it's all of the above.
In any event, despite many viewings of "Goodfellas" over the years -- or maybe because of it -- I really loved reading this book and it flew by very quickly. For better or worse, as someone who saw the movie a bunch of times before reading the book, I found myself visualizing many scenes from the movie as Hill recounted episodes in the book that translated so memorably in the film. Although I've lived more than 20 years in Brooklyn, I grew up in Queens; Hill, a New Yorker, told numerous stories about neighborhoods so familiar to me in my upbringing that my mind's eye could almost picture myself there with him at that point in time of the 1960's. Just when Hill manages to make his lifestyle sound glamorous and fun, he quickly brings the reader back down to earth with the realities that are faced by these men in the trenches who battle both law enforcement and each other on a day to day basis.
If you haven't read this book yet -- or, if it's been a long time since you've seen the movie -- I highly recommend giving this a look. Forget reality TV -- this story is so much more exciting precisely because it's true.