The Cosa Nostra Alive And In Color: Life And Art As Co-imitators

April 27, 1997|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Of course, virtually everything of significance that is seen on film or on television, except for live events, comes from books, including play scripts. The interplay between those forms is rich and ceaseless, both commercially and esthetically. Television, a vapid flickering shadow without books to lead it, propels book sales to the stratosphere. Movies, certain book-based movies, proffer such verisimilitude as to send their subjects into ecstasies of empathy.

Today's case in point: the publication and promotion of "Underboss: Sammy The Bull Gravano's Story of Life in the Mafia," by Peter Maas (HarperCollins. 308 pages. $25).

Salvatore Gravano, now 52 and very much (for the moment at least) alive and in color on television, is a professional murderer. He roams the land a free man in return for testimony that sent John Gotti and a substantial number of ilksters to prison, many of them, including Gotti, for life without parole.

Two TV hours of Gravano, led by Diane Sawyer week before last, were compelling. So is the book. Will the millions who watched Gravano on television be more or less susceptible to the book? Bet on more.

Gravano's appearance was enrapturing: To add the stock-phrase "cold-blooded" to his rightful honorific, "killer," would be to chacterize him as vastly more warm and fuzzy than truth could justify.

Learning curve

Gravano's first "hit" - boss-ordered murder - was to shoot in the back of the head, during a chummy ride about town, an erring fellow-mobster named Joe Colluci. In Gravano's voice - which dominates the text of the book - the job is described as a bit sloppy, an apprentice's learning experience.

Harken the aftermath, also as Gravano puts it: "The car was a mess. Back in the neighborhood, we washed down the inside real good. We were all scared, not like afraid, but excited. I can't really describe it. But then I felt a surge of power. I realized that I had taken a human life, that I had the power over life and death. I was a predator. I was an animal. I was Cosa Nostra. ... I was thinking, Am I supposed to feel remorse? ... But I felt nothing, at least nothing like remorse. If anything, I felt good. Like high. Like powerful, maybe even superhuman."

In a reporter's life, I have known a number of terrorists, most of them Irish and some Muslim, who have talked of killing with similar ecstasy. I find the difference to be without moral distinction, but it's notable that Gravano's purpose is primarily commercial, a matter of business not politics.

Cosa Nostra, of course, means "Our Thing" and is the insider's term for what common folk generally call the Mafia. Maas is master of the subject and the genre, author of 10 previous books, many of them on organized crime, including the classic "The Valachi Papers." He traces the formal structure of the Italian underworld, both Sicilian and Neapolitan, back to 1931 when it became disciplined and organized.

It flourished through World War II and then began to get into trouble in 1957, with the famous nationwide meeting of leaders in Apalachin, N.Y., which was raided through the pure bad luck of having a local state policeman notice a lot of long black Cadillacs and then trace a license plate.

Since then, things have been slowly deteriorating, through a lot of hard work by federal officials. As David W. Marston wrote on these pages on Jan. 7, 1996, in a learned observation since widely quoted and borrowed, "Virtue virtuoso William Bennett may not have noticed yet, but among the family values in decline is omerta, the Mafia's legendary lips-sealed-or-you-die code of silence."

Gravano is the superstar of the unsealing of Cosa Nostrans' lips. His testimony sent dozens of mob figures to prison. Other cooperative witnesses came forward as a result of Gravano's turning. He got five years in prison. He is now 52 years old, and free at last. He runs five miles a day and gets interviewed by Diana Sawyer.

Dapper Teflon

Gotti, of course, was the Dapper Don; until Gravano nailed him, the Teflon Don. At one point, Gravano, reporting on his own moral outrage over Gotti's public posturing, describes himself:

"I don't think I am Robin Hood. I think I am a gangster. I think I am somebody with a very, very limited education, and I fought and kicked and punched and did the best I could to get ahead. I dealt with the reality that someday I will probably be killed, or go to [procreative gerundive expletive deleted] jail, and I lived with that reality all my life. That's the life I chose. That's the road I took."

In 1972, Gravano and, as he tells it, virtually everybody else in the Cosa Nostra saw "The Godfather". "I left that movie stunned," he reports. "I mean, I floated out of the theater. Maybe it was fiction, but for me, then, that was our life. ... I remember talking to a multitude of guys, made guys, everybody, who felt exactly the same way." A "made guy" is a blood-and-oath-initiated member of a Cosa Nostra family.

Gravano has lived a life full of events so extraordinary - brutal, intricately plotted, near-impossible, ironic, criminal - that the book is powerful. It drove me, anyway, violently back and forth between laughter and anger, disgust and delight. From time to time, there is a compelling urge to stop for an espresso laced with anisette.

By the time the book is two-thirds of the way along, it feels like the mob book of the year. Finishing it, no doubt remains. Gravano's betrayal of his brothers has comprehensively become of a single fabric with the values that bound them together.

A single question haunts me: How many "made guys" are out there, right now, buying this book?

Pub Date: 4/27/97

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