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Albert MobilioLike the apologias of political apostates -- or, from an earlier time, the conversion testimonials of saints -- the enduringly popular Mafia confessional serves its own era by recounting in lush detail how, by scaling a great heap of sin, the sinner can reach salvation. A morally bracing and redemptive tale, it reassuringly allows us to pit our trifling wrongs against downright evil and thus to shine by comparison. So when Sammy "The Bull" Gravano, the former underboss of the Gambino crime family and admitted murderer of 19 fellow miscreants, spills his naughty beans, we are all ears; witness the tabloid headlines surrounding this book's publication, its rapid shot to the top of the bestseller lists and the juicy ratings for a two-night network TV author interview. Gravano may not be a St. Augustine or a Whittaker Chambers, but this jail-house songbird is whistling from behind bars like a virtuoso.
A Brooklyn schoolyard bully who was drawn to the power of neighborhood Mafiosi, Gravano matured into a first-rate thug, albeit one with considerable strategic acumen. By the mid-'70s, he had become a "made man." To get in you have to "make your bones," that is, carry out a contract killing. In effortlessly hard-boiled prose, Gravano recalls shooting a friend (typical in the Mafia because friends and family have ease of access) in the back of the head during a car ride after a night of partying: "As that Beatles song played, I became a killer. Joe Colucci was going to die ... I could almost feel the bullet leaving the gun and entering his skull. It was strange. I didn't hear the first shot. I didn't seem to see any blood. His head didn't seem to move."
Having inhaled the heady, operatic atmosphere of The Godfather, Gravano possessed an altar boy's hallowed regard for the Sicilian code of honor and silence (omerta). But this was one altar boy you didn't cross -- when a flashy Czech drug dealer showed disrespect, Sammy had his eyes shot out. A gangster's gangster, Gravano was also a skilled racketeer who eventually controlled much of the drywall construction and concrete pouring business in New York. When he allied himself with a truculent, charismatic capo from Queens named John Gotti to eliminate their capo di tutti capi, Paul Castellano, the two formed a potent combination of business and street smarts. Staged in midtown Manhattan at the dinner hour, the Castellano murder instantly became one of the most notorious mob hits in history. Along with the power it brought them, it also subjected both men to a high degree of media and law enforcement attention, ensuring, in tragic fashion, their downfall. The garrulous, flamboyant Gotti loved the spotlight; Gravano didn't. (The FBI taped Gravano for over 4,500 hours in his private office and didn't get evidence enough for a parking ticket; they taped Gotti for six hours in an apartment above his social club and he gave away the entire show, including implicating Sammy in two murders.)
Betrayed by Gotti, Gravano decided to come in from the cold. He cut a shrewd deal with federal prosecutors and walked out of prison after just eight years. Now with amanuensis Peter Maas, who also shepherded the confessions of the original Mafia turncoat, Joe Valachi, into print, Gravano tells a true-crime tale packed with the shiver of authenticity. Among the growing crop of Mafia self-marketers, he's the rare one with irony as well as a storyteller's knack. Of course, the yarn is familiar -- he once was lost but now he's found -- but Gravano brings fresh blood to its spinning. -- Salon