Nicholas Pileggi is the perfect journalist to cover the mob: born to immigrants from Calabria (the province next to Sicily), he grew up in Brooklyn among members of the Families and started work as a crime reporter the day Jimmy Hoffa and his cronies took over the Teamsters in 1956. Back when J. Edgar Hoover, waggling his bulldog jowls, was angrily denying the very existence of the Mafia, Pileggi knew better. As a kid, he recalls, one of his shirttail relations turned up, full of bullets and dressed as a priest, in a trash can. ''They wouldn't explain it to me,'' he has said. ''Nobody would talk, but I knew.''
Thanks to Pileggi, we all know a lot more about the Mafia than we used to. In 1985 he produced the book Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family, which contained the confessions of Henry Hill, a criminal who ratted on his pals in return for a spot in the Federal Witness Protection Program. Half Irish and only halfway up the gangland ladder, Hill was the perfect witness precisely because he was no Godfather. ''He was the Sergeant Bilko of organized crime,'' says Pileggi, ''an outsider who was part of it. ''
What interests outsider Pileggi are the folkways of mob culture, and what pleases him about GoodFellas, Martin Scorsese's film of his book, is its faithfulness in showing those mores, as well as society's. ''I'm not interested in how the Rigatoni family took over the Spumoni family,'' Pileggi says. ''I'm fascinated by the true story. It speaks to the dark side of American life.'' Most essentially, GoodFellas, like Wiseguy, is an attempt to replace romantic movie myths with hard-edged realism.
''Gangsters are gangsters,'' Pileggi says. ''They are brutal. They use physical force, intimidation, and the threat of death to get what they want. There are very few examples of mercy shown by them to their victims or their peers. I don't know where the notion of romanticism comes from.''
He does, however, have an idea where the enthusiasm for such movies comes from. ''Drama requires larger-than-life characters and experiences: murder, betrayal. Shakespeare's plays were about the rulers of countries, the prince of Denmark, the merchant kings of Venice.'' American entertainment had other mythic heroes. ''For years, cowboy movies provided that material. Now everyone lives in an urban situation. You relate to the city environment: corruption, crime, mobsters. Where else can you go to get these stories?
''And there are people who root for the gangsters,'' the author continues. ''It's not a whole lot of fun out there in America for a working guy. He pays off his mortgage, is honest. Then, he goes to a movie and sees these creeps who aren't honest. In GoodFellas, there's that scene of them with their girlfriends eating steaks and lobsters and Henry's voiceover says, 'Those guys who went to work every day were suckers; as far as we were concerned, we had it all.' Well, in the end, Henry and his friends were the suckers.
''Some people cut corners and it works,'' Pileggi says. ''But the really smart people don't do it. Gangster movies touch upon drugs, labor racketeering, the corrupt criminal justice system-the normal, honest, straight person is basically the victim of all that. Except in the end, he's able to continue living his life. And the ones cutting the corners pay the supreme price, being murdered or going to jail.''
The moral, according to the expert: ''You can't have a gangster movie without some morality in it.''