Thursday, September 4, 2014
Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family
© 1986 Nicholas Pileggi, Henry Hill
How does a boy from a nice family grow up to be a gangster? Well, it helps to live across the street from a mob-owned cab stand that needs fleet-footed boys to run errands. Growing up in poverty, young Henry Hill couldn’t help but envy the lifestyles of the men who frequented the cab stand across the way, rolling by in luxury cars, dressed in tailored suits, and handing out wads of cash like peppermint candy. Determined to wield the power they did, at the age of twelve he became a gofer – and once he learned the art of the hustle, he rose through the ranks of gangsterdom to become the Sam Walton of crime.
If the name sounds familiar, you may have seen the film Goodfellas, which is wholly based on Wiseguy. The film is astonishingly true to the source, because Hill’s life was full of the cheap thrills and casual violence that pervade the movie. Even the scene where Hill wakes up with his wife leveling a pistol at his face is recorded here first. The differences between the film and its text are minor, but both expose the underworld. Although Hill misses the lifestyle he abandons when he flees into witness protection at the end, he doesn’t romanticize his life during that time. Hill doesn’t attempt to dress his life up in a pinstriped suit and pretend to be a man of honor; from the start, he says, he was a hustler. Even as an errand boy, he developed the practice of eking out money whenever he could. Paid to run sandwiches from a shop to card games, young Henry began making the sandwiches at home and pocketing the money.
Such was the pattern of his life; the art of the hustle. Even in the Army, Hill found ways to make a buck; sentenced to the kitchens, he tucked away extra food and sold it on the side, profiting from Uncle Sam’s excess. Wiseguy is entertaining in a voyeuristic fashion, but it’s also informative for those who know little about organized crime. Associates of the Mafia weren’t necessarily on the payroll of the boss; Hill stopped being a paid employee in adolescence. Through most of his life, through all of his schemes, Hill was self-employed – a chronic hustler. He fixed sports matches, applied for credit cards under assumed names, bought untaxed cigarettes and sold them on the cheap. His connection with the Mafia was somewhere between social and ‘political’; other associates were his partners in various operations, and they all relied on the ‘real’ Mafiosi, made men like Paul Vario to settle disputes between one another, or to keep unconnected hoods from working their turf. Some of their extralegal activities are in grey enough territory that a reader might be impressed with their creativity energy; what is the business market if not a larger version of the hustle? But for the most part, Hill and his men take the easy ways out, and they’re not creating wealth so much as repurposing it for themselves. Though their story has legitimate fascination (their tribal relationships are the kind that might have ruled before the creation of law) , ultimately they’re hoods, and when Henry goes down he takes satisfaction in sending some of his lifelong pals to the can. Hill’s life seems flashy and fun, but ultimately it leads to his and all of his friends and family’s ruin, for their moral bankruptcy is total.