It is hard to know anymore what to think about the Mafia. Yes, of course, mobsters are bad people, thugs and murderers, corrupters of unions and peddlers of dope. I don’t mean to imply otherwise. What I do mean to suggest is that it’s hard to know where the mob ranks on the scale of criminality today.
As drug peddlers, do they deserve the same attention from the feds as, say, the Medellín cartel, or are they nickel-and-dime guys? Once upon a time in America, when there was no question that the Mafia was powerful, J. Edgar Hoover used to dismiss organized crime as a myth, assigning only four FBI agents in New York to investigate mobsters. (By contrast, he had 400 agents tracking every innocuous move of supposed ”subversives.”) Today, it often seems as though the situation has been reversed: The Mafia is so enshrouded in myth that it gets more ”credit” than it deserves.
Or, to put it another way: When I read about the dwindling number of hoods in Mafia families and the relatively small amounts of money they bring in from their crimes, I can’t help wondering: Do these guys still matter?
John Cummings and Ernest Volkman, the authors of Goombata, this new — and surely not the last — biography of Mafia don John Gotti, might have performed a useful service had they attempped to answer this question. But this is not something they are interested in doing.
Their subject, after all, is the most mythic mobster of them all — indeed, the most mythic gangster since Al Capone. Gotti is the ”Dapper Don” of the tabloids, with his $1,000 suits (all stolen, according to the authors), his flippant asides to the press (”Three to one we beat this one,” he said after one of his indictments), and, most of all, his charmed life in court.
The legend of Gotti, as it has evolved, has come to center on the fact that no matter how many times they indict him, the feds can’t seem to put him behind bars. It seems fair to say that this has caused the government’s obsession with Gotti, which only helps fuel the myth.
On one level, Cummings and Volkman do demystify the Dapper Don by portraying him as a middle-aged punk. They describe any number of gruesome murders Gotti allegedly ordered or did himself, including the killing of the poor soul who had the tragic misfortune to accidentally run over the don’s 12- year-old son. (The authors claim Gotti personally dismembered the man with a chain saw.)
On every other level, though, they buy into the Gotti myth. The authors repeatedly mention, for instance, Gotti’s ”business” acumen, his organizational abilititi, his shrewd understanding of mob politics, and so on. Well, maybe.
Myself, I couldn’t help noticing that Gotti’s ”goombata” never numbered more than 100 or so men, and that the amounts of money Gotti’s various criminal activities are said to raise usually don’t amount to much more than the annual take of a well-located McDonald’s franchise.
Of course, if Cummings and Volkman are unable to describe Gotti’s criminal skills, it’s in large part because Gotti hasn’t exactly invited them in to do a case study. This leads to another problem with almost any non-fiction book about the mob: The story gets told from one side only. (The two shining exceptions to this rule are Gay Talese’s Honor Thy Father and Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy.)
Thus the authors are put in the position of relying heavily on government sources, so the focus shifts from the mobsters to the detectives who are obsessed with them. And so it is here: The characters who most come to life are the ones on the right side of the law; the battles that get drawn most clearly are the intramural squabbles among the various federal and state entities trying to put Gotti on trial.
There are times when it seems as if there are 20 feds following every mobster; and each time Gotti embarrasses the government, the numbers only increase. As understandable as this obsession is and as laudable the urge to lock up Gotti and throw away the key may be, you still have to wonder: Is John Gotti a big enough criminal to merit this much attention? The same question might be asked of this book. C-