The Mafia Is Not an Equal Opportunity Employer
Honor Thy Father: The Inside Book on the Mafia
As with God in the late Middle Ages, all that there is to know about the Mafia seems to be known by now except whether it actually exists. Among recent exegetes, Professor Joseph Albini finds the evidence so conflicting that no single Mafia can be deduced. Like a street-corner rationalist looking for contradictions in the Bible, Albini believes that when two accounts differ they must both be wrong, and that separate names (Cosa Nostra, the Outfit, etc.) must necessarily stand for different things.
Nicholas Gage finds the fragmented testimony of such canaries as Valachi and Nicola Gentile sufficient to prove the opposite—with a secret society bound to silence, it’s about all the evidence you’re going to get. Gay Talese, who writes like a man on a tapped phone with a gun in his ear, suggests that there may indeed be such a thing but that the American branch consists by now of tired businessmen on the way down. Mario Puzo, as a novelist, has no professional opinion to offer, but knows a good myth when he sees one.
Puzo at least is right. The ineffable Norman Podhoretz recently ascribed our interest in gangsters to our need for success stories (given time, Podhoretz would undoubtedly find sublimated success drives in Love Story and The Sound of Music). But surely no explanation is necessary. The myth of feudal bandits dumped down on twentieth-century Brooklyn is so intrinsically fascinating that even the characters in the real thing, who ought to know better, are tempted to believe it, making it a fact in its own right.
For instance, several gangsters have congratulated Mr. Puzo on his uncanny portrayal of their profession in The Godfather, even though Puzo confesses (in The Godfather Papers)1 that he had never met a gangster in his life. Which means either that the Corleones are just a typical Sicilian family, or—somewhat more likely—that if you make a portrait brave and noble enough, people will see themselves in it somehow.
Similarly, much has been made by unbelievers of the fact that mafiosi never use the word Mafia. But in recent testimony in Boston, Joe “Barbosa” Baron did indeed use it, doubtless having picked it up in his reading. Hoods are as suggestible as the next fellow, and an old friend of Joey Gallo says that Crazy Joe used to think he was Richard Widmark before he had models closer to home. So we may get a Mafia yet, if those lines around The Godfather movie pay attention.
To judge from Albini’s book (which, allowing for special pleading excessive even in a scholar protecting his turf, seems to be a reasonably thorough historical study), the Mafia has always been a myth, but in this same potent sense of a religious myth, like a nonexistent saint who works real miracles. Mafia legends may be sturdier than the real thing. It is, in fact, virtually impossible to trace what became of the real thing between its alleged founding in 1282 and…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.