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An Offer We Can't Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America

An Offer We Can't Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America

5.0 1
by De Stefano, George De Stefano, George de Stefano

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"Invites Italian-Americans of all backgrounds to the family table to discuss how mob-related movies and television shows have affected the very notion of what their heritage still means in the 21st century."
Allen Barra, The New York Sun

"A detailed, textured meditation. Whether De Stefano is summarizing causes of 19th-century Italian immigration,


"Invites Italian-Americans of all backgrounds to the family table to discuss how mob-related movies and television shows have affected the very notion of what their heritage still means in the 21st century."
Allen Barra, The New York Sun

"A detailed, textured meditation. Whether De Stefano is summarizing causes of 19th-century Italian immigration, sketching the Mafia’s origin in Sicily, or dissecting the appeal of Hollywood mobster characters, he catches links to evolving capitalism, discomfort with modern society, psychological urges for strong father figures, and other complex topics not usually addressed by opponents of Mafia pop culture. [De Stefano] provokes hard thought about why the Mafia, to the exclusion of almost every other dimension of Italian American life, stays lodged in ‘the Mind of America.’"
Carlin Romano, The Philadelphia Inquirer

James F. Sweeney, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

"Not a history of organized crime but a study of how we think about organized crime, more precisely about Italians and crime. . . Valuable and interesting."
Elliott J. Gorn, Chicago Tribune

"A thoughtful, thorough analysis."
Renee Graham, The Boston Globe

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Journalist De Stefano takes a careful look at the appeal of the Mafia in popular culture: how the image of the Italian gangster developed and how it affects Italian-Americans. He traces the evolution of the gangster in film, from the "roguishly charming" Irish gangster (James Cagney in Public Enemy) to the sinister Italian who replaced him (Paul Muni in Scarface). Southern Italian immigrants, who came to the U.S. in unprecedented waves, were seen as "unassimilable... irreducibly foreign" (according to an 1883 New York Times editorial), and De Stefano presents their history and the history of the Mafia, debunking some commonly held ideas, especially the myth that the Mafia is rooted in a centuries-old Sicilian tradition. De Stefano meticulously documents books, TV and films, especially the Godfather series, the work of Martin Scorsese and The Sopranos. He cites Italian-American writers and academics on how the perception of Italians as mobsters affects the community and contributes his own responses. And despite his conclusion that the Mafia "is now the paradigmatic pop culture expression of Italian-American ethnicity," De Stefano allows that Italians have succeeded in mainstream America. The book lacks a narrative arc, but the author has done a fine job with a complex and provocative subject. (Jan.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A whip-smart meditation on the power of ethnic myth, in this instance the one that supposes that to be an Italian American is by definition to walk among the dons and the goombahs. The Mafia, some say, is fading away. But "if the mob indeed is dying, American popular culture tells a different story," writes cultural critic De Stefano: Thanks to The Sopranos, organized crime has been restored in the popular imagination to its proper role as heart and hearth of italianita. So culturally accurate is the show, De Stefano allows, that it may not be possible to correct that perception; even as the mobsters surrounding Tony Soprano take their cultural cues from earlier Mob classics-particularly The Godfather, the touchstone of it all-there are few pop-culture pieces that do not echo The Sopranos, few that depict Italian Americans as being, well, just plain folks without conniving, murderous streaks to wrestle with. De Stefano writes elegantly of self-discoveries: As a bearded radical (a la Al Pacino's Serpico, one imagines) just beginning to be aware of being gay, he was still thrilled by Don Corleone, only to wonder later whether there weren't more to the story. He examines the rise of the mobster in popular culture, tracing its origin to the 1930 film The Doorway to Hell (and not, as many histories do, to the following year's Little Caesar), and follows its course through the thick stereotypes of the Untouchables era, to the pensive doings of Martin Scorsese's rebel gangsters and, finally, to David Chase's current depictions, which have anti-defamation groups at a constant boil. Should they be so bothered? De Stefano is sympathetic, but he wonders whether an unlinking from the mob and all itssymbolism might not mean "the end of the Italian American as a protagonist in American popular culture."What's worse, to be seen in a negative light-or to not be seen at all? A good question, and a very good source for those who like to scratch below the surface.
From the Publisher
“Finally, a book that helps to explain America's enduring fascination with the mythology of the Mafia. For anyone who's interested in the subject, An Offer We Can't Refuse is essential reading--thoughtful, informative, entertaining, and most of all, even-handed.” —John Turturro

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Faber and Faber
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Read an Excerpt

Excerpted from An Offer We Can't Refuse by George De Stefano. Copyright © 2006 by George De Stefano. Published January 2006 by Faber and Faber Inc, an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.


The Mafia is dead.

Long live the mafioso.

At the dawn of the new millennium, the Italian American mafia barely resembled its old fearsome self. Beginning in the 1980s, vigorous law enforcement drove gangsters out of many of their traditional rackets and put many of its leaders in prison. In early 2003, Joseph Massino, the Bonanno organization boss and the last purported head of New York's notorious "five families" of crime still at large, was arrested and a year later was convicted on murder and racketeering charges and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Then Massino did something unheard-of for an old-time mafia chief: he broke omertà the venerable code of silence, and became a government witness.

John Gotti, the publicity-loving "Dapper Don," died of cancer in prison in 2002; a year later his brother Peter, his successor as boss, was tried, convicted, and imprisoned.

Vincent "the Chin" Gigante, the Genovese family chief who had eluded justice for years by feigning insanity—how could this mumbling old man shuffling through Greenwich Village in a tattered bathrobe be a cunning crime lord? his lawyers had argued—was also put behind bars. At his sentencing in March 2003, the Chin admitted, to the chagrin of his lawyers and the mental health professionals who had long attested to his impaired state of mind, that it had all been an act.

And among thosemafiosi not yet dead or incarcerated, omertà further collapsed as wiseguys increasingly chose to do the unthinkable: spill family secrets to prosecutors rather than stoically accept decades of imprisonment.

Chazz Palmintieri, the Bronx-born actor who has played gangsters in such films as Analyze This and Bullets Over Broadway, and who grew up in a mobbed-up neighborhood, explains why omertà no longer governs mafiosi in their dealings with law enforcement. "Once a DA says to a wiseguy, 'I wish you'd talk to me, 'cause if you don't you will never see the sun for the next fifty years,' whaddaya gonna do? The guy will talk. It's just that way. And by rights, he should talk. Let 'em put you away for forty years, fifty years?…People talk. So that's what broke that code of silence."

No wonder an Italian journalist has called the current chapter of the American mafia's history "il declino del padrino"—the decline of the Godfather.1 But if the mob indeed is dying, American popular culture tells a different story, one in which Italian American organized crime—the mafia, La Cosa Nostra, the mob—remains a potent, if troubled and diminished force.

The spectacular success of the HBO series The Sopranos currently provides the most compelling testament to the gangster genre's enduring popularity. Created by veteran television writer David Chase (né De Cesare), the series, about a depressed New Jersey mobster whose two "families," his crime crew and his blood relatives, are giving him major agità, is the most successful program in the history of cable television. The show has consistently attracted more viewers than its competition on broadcast television, even though the networks reach three times as many homes as HBO. 2 In 2004 The Sopranos received an Emmy award for Best Drama Series, the first time a cable show won in that category.

The Sopranos has made stars of the actors who portray the two central characters, Tony and Carmela Soprano: James Gandolfini, previously a character actor with a solid but unspectacular career in movies, and Edie Falco, acclaimed for her roles onstage and in independent films. The show has also served as a virtual employment agency for dozens of Italian American actors and actresses, based in New York and New Jersey.

To cultural critics, The Sopranos is not simply an enormously popular and clever spin on gangster mythology. Academics and journalists have acclaimed the show as dramatic literature, reminiscent of Dickens and George Eliot, as a reflection of the concerns and struggles of the postmodern American middle class ("our gangsters, ourselves"),3 and as a deconstruction of the male supremacy, racism, and fascism inherent in gangsters and gangsterism.

No, The Sopranos is no mere entertainment. The show is "so perfectly attuned to geographic details and cultural and social nuances that it just may be the greatest work of American popular culture of the last quarter century," according to New York Times critic Stephen Holden.4 Critical adulation of The Sopranos inspired a Saturday Night Live spoof that led off with Holden's quote and followed it with ever-more-effusive pretend blurbs from other critics, reaching peak absurdity with "Someday The Sopranos will replace oxygen as the thing we use to breathe."

Plaudits for the show also come from psychiatrists enthralled by the portrayal of their profession in the scenes of Tony Soprano's therapy sessions. (There appears to be a general consensus among practitioners that these scenes constitute the most accurate depiction of the talking cure in the history of American popular culture.)5 The Internet magazine Slate runs a feature every Monday in which a group of shrinks comment on the previous night's episode, paying particular attention to the performance of Dr. Jennifer Melfi, Tony's therapist.

The Sopranos also has spawned a growth industry in merchandising, including soundtrack CDs with titles like Peppers and Eggs, DVDs of each season's complete episodes, pricey coffee table books, a cookbook featuring recipes purportedly created by the chef in the show's fictional Nuovo Vesuvio restaurant, and even a line of men's clothing. Now male fans can actually dress like Tony S: HBO has signed a licensing pact calling for Zanzara International, a Florida apparel maker, to market dress and casual shirts and silk ties under the Sopranos brand to department stores.6

Tony Soprano may be the top dog in today's media mafia, but his arrival on the cultural landscape was preceded, and has been followed, by many other portrayals of mob life. From Rico "Little Caesar" Bandello and Tony "Scarface" Camonte in the 1930s to the Corleones in the 1970s to today's intrapsychically troubled New Jersey "waste management specialist," the mafia gangster has been established as a pop-culture archetype of enduring fascination to Americans of all ethnic backgrounds.

Meet the Author

George De Stefano is a journalist and critic who has written extensively on culture for numerous publications, including The Nation, Film Comment, and Newsday.

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An Offer We Can't Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Finally a book that comprehensively deals with the Italian American experience and the myths that have been generated about them. The book operates on both an intellectual and pop culture level and is immensly readable- either from front to back or by chapter. You may never see such pop culture icons as 'The Sopranos' and 'The Godfather' the same again!