Saturday, July 15, 2006

Recently I finished reading "Underboss", the late Peter Maas' biography of mob turncoat Sammy "The Bull" Gravano. Like Nicolas Pileggi in "Wiseguy", Mass largely told his story in his subject's own words. Neither Maas nor Gravano exactly tried to whitewash Gravano's crimes--after all, he had made a pretty full confession to federal agents and in federal court--but Maas couldn't seem to avoid some sympathy for his, er, protagonist. After Gravano made his decision to testify against John Gotti, Maas devoted space to describing the praise Gravano received from the FBI agents and the federal prosecutor who worked with him, as well as from the federal judge who sentenced him to a mere five years in prison.

Gravano did make himself out to be an old-school gangster, the last of a dying breed who took seriously the blood oath that was administered to him when he was formally inducted into the Gambino crime family. He nonetheless violated two of the mafia's most important rules with little apparent hesitation--he helped to orchestrate the unsanctioned murder of a boss, Paul Castellano, and of course he testified against Gotti and dozens of other mob figures. Maas doesn't condemn Gravano, but then again, he doesn't need to. Gravano's crimes speak for themselves.

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There seems to be an expectation that that's how organized crime books should be written. During my string of rejections I heard a lot of "We were expecting something more like Wiseguy."

I've chosen -- for better or worse -- to use Ron Gonen's point of view but not his words in Blood & Volume: Inside New York's Israeli Mafia (I apologize for the shameless plug). My thinking was I wanted to be able to fact check it as much as possible and have it be a purely nonfiction account of what happened.

Beyond that, Gonen wasn;t a full fledged member, but more or less provides a front row seat to the gang -- a view that is supplemented with loads of court transcripts, wire taps and other research materials.

The problem, however, is there isn;t one central narrative voice, which was a bit of a challenge to work we'll see what happens with it.
I think the technique worked better in "Wiseguy" than in "Underboss", though I'm struggling to put my finger on a specific reason. I think Henry Hill seemed a bit more self aware than Sammy Gravano; also, Pileggi devoted considerable space, if memory serves, to Henry Hill's wife; in "Underboss", we rarely heard from anyone but Gravano.

I would have liked a bit more detachment in both books, so I think you are wise to do it the way you are planning.
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