Thursday, September 16, 2010

Casino

Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas
© 1995 Nicholas Pileggi
363 pages


The first gangster movie I ever watched was Martin Scorcese's Goodfellas, based off of Nicholas Pileggi's Wiseguy. Pileggi's account of life in the Sicilian mob is considerably more gritty and less romanticized than Mario Puzo's novels, and he followed it with this work, Casino, which also inspired a movie starring Joe Pesci. (He plays the same character in both films: a short, mouthy bruiser who can go from a dead calm to psychotic rage at the drop of a hat.) I encountered the book while doing a web search a few weeks back and finally remembered to check it out this week.

Although Casino was classified as fiction by my library, the narrative draws heavily from interviews with the main character and those who knew him (including the police), wiretapping transcripts, official police reports, and news articles. It's the story of Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal,  a talented sports bettor, bookie, and handicapper who oversees the action of four Mob-backed casinos in Las Vegas in the 1970s relying on Tony "the Ant" Spilotro for intimidation purposes. Pileggi begins by establishing the two characters' backgrounds: while Rosenthal grew up learning to predict odds for sports matches, Spilotro preferred handicapping people to games: his chief talent was intimidation through brutality.  After trouble with the law, they both migrate to Las Vegas and make the town their own -- living large and socking away millions before falling prey to themselves and an increasingly effective FBI.

Entertaining for a mob story, but what I enjoyed most was learning about the world of sports gambling and casinos. I don't understand why gambling is illegal in the United States, but it seems to give unsavory characters a reliable means of income by controlling underground affairs. The book ends with a curious sigh for days gone past, when the Mafia with its personal touches ruled Vegas instead of the garish, impersonal theme park casinos of the corporations.


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