Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Italian-Americans' Love/Hate Affair with the Mafia Mystique

Years ago, writing about the legacy of Mario Puzo, I said, "If there is a God and he is indeed Catholic, then Puzo is burning in hell." Before The Godfather was published in 1969, historians of organized crime in the 20th century told us that some major stars of the modern mob had names like Arnold Rothstein, Owney Madden, and Logan and Fred Billingsley.

After The Godfather, the only major crime figures who got any attention were the ones whose names ended in vowels.

Thanks to this myth-mongering hack, Frank Sinatra will forever be remembered as the man who, through his fictional counterpart, Johnny Fontaine, crooned "I Have But One Heart" at his godfather's daughter's wedding. It is now taken for fact that Sinatra owed his comeback and hence his success not to his talent but to the Mafia; apparently they held guns to the heads of people, forcing them to buy all those Sinatra albums.

The provocative and lively An Offer We Can't Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America by George De Stefano, a journalist and cultural critic whose work can be most often read in The Nation, has convinced me that I've been too tough on Puzo. The Godfather, the book and the movie, did, after all, succeed in reviving interest in Italian-American culture at a time when it appeared to be fading into the suburban landscape. I can only speak for members of my father's family, who rather enjoyed the attention and even reveled in the idea that they might actually be a bit feared because of their name.

For De Stefano, as for many of our generation, Francis Ford Coppola's film was an epiphany. The gay baby boomer son of a Neapolitan auto mechanic and a Sicilian housewife, De Stefano, by the time he was in college, had drifted far from his parents' world: "The Stones' Sticky Fingers was on my stereo and a Black Panther poster adorned my dorm room wall. My identity was radical hippie freak. ... My ethnic background was just that, background."

An Offer We Can't Refuse invites Italian-Americans of all backgrounds to the family table to discuss the issues of how mob-related movies and television shows have affected the notion of what their heritage still means in the 21st century.

It's a big table. At the head is Richard Gambino, whose 1974 book Blood of My Blood - The Dilemma of Italian-Americans was the first serious work of nonfiction written on the subject; sitting in the middle are Gay Talese, Nicholas Gage, and nearly every other prominent, second-generation Italian-American journalist; and fighting for attention down at the end of the table are third-generation would-be personas importante such as Maria Laurino, Maria Russo, Bill Tonelli and, in the interests of full disclosure, me (I am quoted twice by De Stefano). As you can imagine, it's one heck of a noisy table.

The principal topic of discussion is not so much the Mafia, whose power most experts seem to feel is dwindling, as the Mafia's mystique. But as journalist Anthony Mancini puts it, "It's just too good a myth to abandon."

The best movies and shows about mobsters and their families - Coppola's The Godfather DVD Collection movies, Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets (Special Edition), The Sopranos, the late, lamented cult TV series Wiseguy - were never really about the mob anyway; they were always about the vicissitudes of Italian-American family life and the perils of maintaining tradition in the face of assimilation, a metaphor for the American immigrant experience.

As a Russian neighbor of mine put it, "I never really thought The Godfather was about crime. I thought it was about the part where Don Corleone tells Michael he wanted something better for him than he had had."

These shows provide an answer to why the people who gave the world Dante, da Vinci, Boccaccio, Verdi and Rossini have produced so few literary artists in this country. Their grandparents might have come here without being able to write in their own language, much less English, but Coppola, Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Quentin Tarantino and several others have used their experiences to give the world the poetry that their ancestors couldn't. Don Corleone gave Michael something better after all. But, says De Stefano, "Consider another possibility. Italian Americans owe their high visibility in American popular culture in large measure to the very gangster image so many deplore. If the mafioso as cultural archetype were to become extinct, might Italian Americans themselves drop off the radar screen?"

In other words, if the Mafia myth peters out, does that mean the end of the Italian-American as a protagonist in our popular culture?

It's a dicey question, but after careful consideration De Stefano answers with a resounding "no." The Mafia myth, he steadfastly maintains, cannot be the last word: "Ethnicity remains a riveting, complicated drama of American life, and popular art that illuminates its workings still is needed ... Italian America still has many more stories to tell."

Thanks to Allen Barra

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