WISEGUY: Life in A Mafia Family by Nicholas Pileggi

WISEGUY: Life in A Mafia Family

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Crime does pay--and well, most of the time, according to this unsentimental profile of a lower-echelon hoodlum turned informant. In matter-of-fact style, Pileggi (an investigative reporter for New York magazine) tells the story of Henry Hill, whose for-the-record existence ended at age 36 when he entered the Justice Department's Federal Witness Protection Program. Before that 1980 day, Hill had enjoyed a consistently prosperous career as a street soldier (or wise guy) for Paul Vario, an aging underboss in the Brooklyn-based mob headed by Gaetano Lucchese. Sicilian ancestry (on his mother's side) gained Hill entr‚e into the rackets before he was a teen-ager. The Mafia, however, seems not to be an equal-opportunity employer, and lack of an Italian surname precluded his advancement. Bootleg cigarettes, hijacked cargoes, stolen credit cards, bookmaking, loan-sharking, and a wealth of other illegal enterprises nonetheless provided Hill with a steady flow of easy money. Thanks to a no-show job (as a union bricklayer), Hill managed to live an ostensibly normal suburban life with his wife (a nice Jewish girl from Long Island who seems to have viewed her husband as a good provider with odd business associates) and two daughters. There were risks as well as rewards in Hill's violent, frequently murderous underworld; his luck began running out in the mid-1970's when he was sentenced to a 10-year term (for extortion) in a federal penitentiary. Once out of prison (where he continued to ply his illicit trades), Hill defied a godfatherly ban on trafficking in narcotics. Soon a cocaine addict himself, Hill began bribing Boston College basketball players in a point-shaving scam. Though not directly involved, Hill also had guilty knowledge of the Lufthansa heist at Kennedy Airport, a $6-million caper that produced a double-digit body count, but no important convictions. Arrested on drug charges, Hill soon learned that Vario had not only deserted him but also authorized his murder. Aware that Hill knew, literally, where the bodies were buried, law-enforcement officials made him an offer he couldn't refuse. Five years later, he's still testifying for Strike Force prosecutors against his old accomplices. Through Pileggi, who presents Hill's inside account of organized crime largely without comment, he continues to do so. Instructive, but no great breakthrough for the genre.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1985
Publisher: Simon & Schuster