Wise Guy, Nicholas Pillegi

Pocket, 1985, 308 pages, C$5.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-63392-9

Hopefully, most readers of these reviews aren’t career criminals. Not that it’s a hard thing to do: Despite the distorted picture presented by popular media, lives of crime aren’t at the reach of every common layman: They demand, like most specialized professions, a certain set of skills, mindset and training. Needless to say, this type of training isn’t commonly offered to the average suburban white middle-class male statistically most likely to be reading these lines.

But, living as he was in Italian New York in the 1950s, Henry Hill was uncommonly well-placed to ascend the ladder of crime. (“and slide down the slippery path of eternal damnation!” adds the preacher) Hired as a common job-runner, Hill quickly shows a flair for the quick buck. As Pillegi explains,

For Henry and his wiseguys friends, the world was golden. They lived in an environment awash in crime, and those who did not partake were simply viewed as prey. Anyone waiting his turn on the pay line was beneath contempt. Those who did were fools. [P.36]

To escape from the drudgery of the common American man, Hill saw an easy solution: go deeper in the underworld. And indeed, Hill would become one of the top men in the New York mafia. Upon his arrest in 1980, FBI agents would be stunned at the extent of his knowledge. Unlike other top criminals who only specialized in a few selected areas, Hill -despite a position roughly in the middle of the criminal hierarchy- has involved in everything: Drugs, gambling, theft, murders… Hill knew where the bodies were buried, often literally.

Don’t feel surprised if you’ve heard this story before: Wise Guy is the basis of the award-winning 1990 Martin Scorsese film GOODFELLAS, considered by many critics to be among the best films of the nineties. Reading the source material, it’s not hard to find the elements that, properly handled, would form the basis for a great film: An interesting protagonist not that far removed from the typical viewer, an epic crime story spanning decades, a wealth of fascinating details and plenty of narrative hooks on which to build great scenes.

But, as good as GOODFELLAS was, Wise Guy is even better: it deepens the anecdotes, explains some of the film’s seemingly most fanciful liberties (such as the high-class life of top mafiosos in prison) and is somewhat clearer on the path from runner to gangster. Even though Scorsese was no slouch at creating a well-rounded portrait of criminal motivations and the resulting life in constant potential violence, Hill truly completes the picture and the result is very convincing.

Obviously, half -if not more- the credit for the book must go to journalist/interviewer Nicholas Pillegi, who manages to tighten up Hill’s words in a taut, compulsively readable narrative. That he was able to do all that under difficult interviewing conditions (Hill is currently, and will forever remain, under the protection of the Witness Protection Program) is nothing short of admirable. His work is for our benefit; this is the closest that most of us will come to a personal interview with a monster.

Interestingly (or unfortunately), the overall impression given by Wise Guy is one of nostalgic charm for the gangster era. Mafia members come to form a relatively sympathetic group of criminals with honor. Far from being despicable serial killers or contemptible petty thieves, Hill’s testimony paints a portrait of rather decent guys despite the pesky murders and police bribery.

Fascinating how the view from the other side is often more compelling that ours. But I’m still not giving all away for a life of crime. The hours are just murder.

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