Hood’s Progress!

Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family

by Nicholas Pileggi
Simon and Schuster, 256 pp., $17.95

We do not often find a vocational-guidance manual as useful or a domestic-relations chronicle as lively as Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family. Wiseguy ends with Henry Hill, Pileggi’s antsy antihero, lodged with 4,500 other civil servants in the $25-million-budget line of a federal protected-witness program that scrupulously observes merit-system standards. Hill and his fellow bureaucrats have passed the entry-level test for experience at criminal pursuits and have established their tenure by turning in such of their former comrades as missed the lesson that organized crime, like the old American Communist party, is an enterprise whose securest profits are reserved not for those who stay but for those who bolt.

We are fortunate that this public servant who earned office with twenty-five years of diligent application to the works of the public enemy has found a biographer with gifts for irony and intimacy as singular as Pileggi’s. Wiseguy would be distinctly less compelling if its author did not have an eye inclined to focus upon his protagonist’s nature and ambiance more zestfully than upon his actions. Hill’s reminiscences persuade us indeed that larcenous pursuits have settled into routines so simple and so safe from any more-than-occasional intrusion by law officers that the hours when the felon is not engaged at his vocation are altogether more interesting than those when he is.

These daily rounds, by their very hyperactivity, begin to numb us with their tedium, and, stuck as he was in an occupation skimpy with chances for character growth and change, Hill ends up engaging us far less than does his wife, the former Karen Freid, a Long Island dental assistant, who thought she was marrying a bricklayer with unusual cachet at the Copacabana, discovered the reality—as much a fantasy, of course, as her original misapprehension—and so adjusted herself to her homemaker’s responsibilities that in due course she was visiting her husband in prison with her brassiere stuffed with marijuana and pills for sale to his inmate brothers. She is currently displaying the same marvelous adaptability as a real-estate peddler in her family’s new place of refuge.

The family of Henry Hill’s uneasy household commands our interest far more lastingly than the Mafia family of his allegiance; and it is Pileggi’s appreciation of the difference and the illuminations of his domestic touches that set his apart from the run of those institutional Mafia studies which seem to grow more bloodless with each fresh effusion of the bloody.

Six years after he had the wit to repair to the recruiting offices of the forces of light, Henry Hill lives, by Pileggi’s account, “somewhere in America…[with] a successful business, a $150,000 house,” and children in private schools. He has a Keogh plan, and he can put some glow in the gray days of legitimacy with the trips on which he earns his $1,500-a-month government salary by swearing old fellow felons into jail, in the …

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