Monday, March 28, 2016

An Offer We Can't Refuse - The Mafia in the Mind of America

It's ironic that at a time when the real-life Mafia has never been weaker, its grip on the American consciousness has never been stronger. Just as Westerns - first as novels, then television shows and movies - did not become popular until long after the frontier was settled, the Mafia seems to be reaching a media peak even as its leaders die, get sent away or turn state's evidence.


It's been all but conceded that "The Sopranos" is the greatest thing on television ever, and "The Godfather" trilogy continues to occupy a huge space in the cultural landscape. Mafioso appear regularly in movies, television shows, commercials and even animated cartoons. Robert De Niro provided the voice for a piscine godfather in the movie "Shark Tale."

Why the public so loves media portrayals of the Mafia is the subject of George De Stefano's "An Offer We Can't Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America." Journalist De Stefano traces the roots of the American Mafia to southern Italy and explains how prejudice against Italian immigrants fostered the growth of organized crime here even as it exaggerated the Mafia's reach and power.


Early portrayals of Italian criminals were crude and racist, but the public's fascination with stylish outlaws eventually gave celluloid gangsters an anti-hero cachet. While disparaging earlier, racist depictions of the Mafia, De Stefano has little patience with Italian-Americans who think "The Sopranos" and "Goodfellas" hurt the community. It is too well established and too successful to be hurt by Tony Soprano's excesses. In fact, the author singles out "The Sopranos" for its realistic portrayal of the Mob as chaotic and in decline, hardly the omnipotent syndicate of popular fiction.

The subject is a fascinating one, but "An Offer We Can't Refuse" only partly delivers. For one, it feels padded. Scarcely a page goes by without a lengthy quotation from an Italian-American critic, actor or social commentator. No point is made unless it is belabored. Nonetheless, people who want to know how we got from Edward G. Robinson's Rico "Little Caesar" Bandello to James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano will enjoy this book.

Thanks to James Sweeney

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