Monday, February 12, 2007

The Unfinished Business of Donnie Brasco

The only real mobster I ever met was a funny little guy named Fred. He was short, stooped and rumpled, with basset-hound eyes and pallid skin. A wise-cracking, kewpie-doll of a guy with a cigarette hanging out of the side of his mouth. Maybe you remember him. Fred Roti, former alderman of the old mobbed-up First Ward. The representative, as Harper's Magazine once described him, of the "Italian business interests" in City Hall.

Freddy liked to hang out at the City Hall press room and share coffee and jokes with the beat reporters. In fact, he was the Art Linkletter of the city council. Freddy thought reporters, just like kids, say the darnedest things!

I happened to be there on the day he asked his legendary question: "So, boys, what should my campaign slogan be this year?"

"Vote for Roti," Bob Davis said without skipping a beat, "and nobody gets hurt!"

Furtive glances. A pause. A long pause. It seemed to get awfully hot all of a sudden, too. And then that old Linkletter look spread slowly across Roti's gnarled face. "You're baaaad," he chortled to relieved laughter all around.

If we're lucky, that's as close as most of us will ever get to an honest-to-goodness wiseguy. But Joe Pistone, a k a Donnie Brasco, has lived in the belly of the beast.

Pistone is the former FBI agent who went undercover as a Mafia soldier for six years and helped cripple the Five Families of New York. He told his story in a best-selling book that later became a movie starring Al Pacino and Johnny Depp.

Now, Pistone is back with a sequel. Donnie Brasco: Unfinished Business promises to reveal the tales that he couldn't disclose earlier. Unfortunately, it seems more like a ploy to cash in one more time on the Donnie Brasco brand. The book has all the drama of a night out with the boys, reliving the glory days. And it reads with all the charm of a 300-page federal indictment.

And that's a shame, since if you can endure the self-congratulation, insufferable stories about being on the set with Al and Johnny, and a Jack Webb -- just the facts, ma'am! -- style of storytelling, there are some fascinating insights here into what mobsters are really like, and what it takes to bring them down.

The best stories illuminate the moral ambiguity inherent in the double life of an undercover agent. In the name of the law, he has to be ready to break the law. To catch a criminal, he has to risk becoming one.

For the first time, Pistone admits to crimes that would have ended the Donnie Brasco operation if his superiors in the FBI had known about them -- hijackings, burglaries, armed robberies and beatings. "I had to gain the trust of criminals and gangsters," he says, "and there is only one way to do that. You got to do what you got to do."

Pistone tells a chilling story about a capo -- his boss -- ordering him to kill a mob enemy. It's a wiseguy's ultimate test. "The people I had been assigned to infiltrate engaged in murder the way a cabbie goes through a yellow light," Pistone writes. "I had long ago made my decision of what to do when this predictable occasion arose. If Bruno's there, he's gone. If I have to put a bullet in his head, I will."

There is a nagging conflict between what Pistone thinks he can achieve and what his FBI superiors think is reasonable -- and safe.

After blowing one assignment for his mob bosses, Pistone is called to a summit to face the music. He knows the FBI would rather pull the plug on the operation than risk his life. Pistone also knows the basic rule of mob life is "not to rat, and not to run." So he goes, without telling the FBI. "I was finally in so deep I was lying to the FBI by omission," he says. "Because of my job I lied regularly in my personal life to those I was closest to. I was finally in the mud at the deep end."

One reads on in anticipation and, finally, irritation, waiting in vain for more stories packing this kind of tension. The closest he comes is a brief description of how Donnie Brasco was ordered to abort his undercover pose just as he was on the verge of becoming a "made member" of the Bonnano crime family, a decision he describes as having "the keys to the vault and suddenly throwing them away." But there's no elaboration, no sense of what the debate was like, and what was really lost.

Instead, an interminable, mind-numbing timeline of recent mob cases descends into a tirade on a trial in which Pistone claims everyone involved -- wiseguys, investigators and prosecutors -- are angling ineptly for book deals. The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight winds up as The Gang That Couldn't Write Straight.

Thanks to Joe Kolina, a Chicago journalist with a long-standing interest in what Bonnano family soldier Lefty Ruggiero described as "the underworld field."

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