Who Is Lou Sciortino?
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Who Is Lou Sciortino?

by Ottavio Cappellani

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Ottavio Cappellani's wildly entertaining Mafia comedy takes us into the unhinged world of a family that makes the Sopranos look like the Waltons. As blood-red as a good bottle of Sicilian wine, Who Is Lou Sciortino? is an exhilarating debut from one of Italy's brightest young talents.

Growing up on the streets of New York, young Lou Sciortino learned many


Ottavio Cappellani's wildly entertaining Mafia comedy takes us into the unhinged world of a family that makes the Sopranos look like the Waltons. As blood-red as a good bottle of Sicilian wine, Who Is Lou Sciortino? is an exhilarating debut from one of Italy's brightest young talents.

Growing up on the streets of New York, young Lou Sciortino learned many lessons from his grandfather, Don Lou: that whiners are fools; that in order to get respect from other people, you sometimes have to whack a guy; and that the movie business is a perfect place to make dirty money clean. So when young Lou is set up as the head of Starship Pictures, everybody's happy. That is, until the day a rival Mafia family plants a bomb in their offices. Nobody's happy after that, especially not Don Lou, who decides to send his grandson to Sicily to stay out of danger; after all, a really nice, decent person like Lou just doesn't take part in Mafia warfare.

Not long after young Lou goes to work for Uncle Sal Scali—a hapless Mafia boss from Catania who can't even keep the peace in his own neighborhood—a cop is killed during a routine robbery and young Lou is chosen to bring the situation under control. But there's someone else Sal has to reckon with: Lou's grandfather. Don Lou doesn't like the way things are shaping up in Sicily, and decides it's time he paid one last visit to the old country. That's when the bullets really start to fly.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Italian journalist Cappellani aspires to emulate Elmore Leonard's darkly humorous books about Mafia life in his first novel with indifferent results. Lou Sciortino, a young member of a New York organized crime family, is tapped to head a new movie studio intended to be a cash cow for the organization. After a rival mob family derails that plan with a fatal bombing of the studio's offices, Lou's bosses send him to Sicily. That island proves no haven either after a botched robbery that kills an Italian policeman turns up the heat on the Sicilian Mafia. The brutal, sometimes cartoonish violence undercuts the author's efforts at black comedy, while the overbroad characterizations fall short of the standard of Leonard's more sophisticated crime fiction. (May)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.53(d)

Read an Excerpt


He was sitting by the cast-iron stove, in the old armchair that had taken on his shape, toying with his grafting knife. Poor hopeless innocent that you were, you thought for a moment that with a thin blade like that he couldn't even stab a dog. But your grandpa could peel a man like a potato, then leave him lying there, skinned alive, reflecting on his sins.

"Better an innocent man on the inside than a guilty man on the outside," he was saying. Grandpa had been inside several times, and had never complained, he went in and out of the can like he was going to an opening at the Met, with that elegant air of his that seemed to say, Better I take the rap than someone else . . .

So you were still a kid when you realized that someone who'd never done time couldn't possibly be innocent, that there was no point in whining when you went in, whiners were fools, and if you made a mistake and smashed somebody's face who had nothing to do with anything, well . . . it wasn't the end of the world.

The cast-iron stove sat there waiting for you every day, warming the clothes on your back, steaming the damp out of your jacket. And the old man tempting you, drilling it into you: You gotta get respect, but you don't boast about it, and if you gotta use force, act like you had no choice. "That's the difference between a man and a backslapper, Lou."

So you went around looking sad and fatalistic, and you gave the other kids that look, like you were saying, One of these days, I might be forced to hurt you real bad, even if you're a good guy at heart. And the neighborhood boys got to thinking you meant business.

Until circumstance, call it destiny, call it chance, made you mean business for real.

It was one thing to earn respect from the guys from around the way, like that pacchiotto Goldstein, who paid you to play in his pool hall. It was quite another to challenge the bosses for control.

Of course, there wasn't anything to control yet, but you knew control was what you had to have, even if you didn't yet know what the word meant. When you were kids, all you had to do was take over a bar or a pool hall and lay down the law: decide who could come in and who couldn't. Every now and then you had to smash somebody's face, just to show you could.

One day, though, they smashed your face . . . over some shitty little luncheonette downtown! You came home with blood caked on your lips, and the old man smiled and said, "That asshole, that fucking dickbrain"—he was repeating himself, but Grandpa liked to repeat himself—"now you gotta kill him."

He walked to his armchair, like a priest to the altar. "Oh, you don't have to kill him . . . You should, but it's not down to you, times are changing . . . Still, it's time you saw how the world works. See, Lou, it's a dog-eat-dog world, but once upon a time they invented something beautiful. That something's called money."

He sat down. "When they invented this thing, they thought it would help everyone to get along. But you see, the world is divided into people who can get along and people who can't. That son of a bitch didn't come to you to suggest an arrangement, he came and smashed your face. You can't do anything with people like that except kill them. Sure, it's not a pleasant thing: when you kill people like that, you gotta do it with a sad look on your face, somewhere public, so everybody can see how sad you are. Capish?"

You had a sudden coughing fit.

"Can't you fucking let me finish before you start puking your guts out?"

With that deadpan look he assumed on special occasions, the old man explained the meaning of control. Control meant just one thing: not paying, but getting paid, protection.

"You see, Lou, if I don't get paid protection, someone else will, and if someone else gets paid, in the end they're gonna want to get paid by me, and I couldn't stand for that. I'd have to go all up and down the neighborhood killing every last faggot who wanted me to pay. So, in order to kill the smallest possible number of people, I'm forced to make them pay. Capish?"

So Grandpa killed only the people who got in the way of his control. Then he reinvested the money, business boomed, and everyone in the neighborhood was happy. You understood, Lou, even if the FBI and the faggotass cops in the police didn't get it: they thought the money he made from control was dirty, and Grandpa couldn't make the neighborhood happy until he cleaned it off.

Now, in Los Angeles they'd invented something else: the movies. And there was a lot of money in movies. Grandpa thought it would be a good idea to make the money even cleaner.

"Forget about the luncheonettes downtown, tell that banana head who beat you up to go fuck himself, and go to Los Angeles, to our friends' film school, all right? Study hard, and maybe you won't have to kill anybody again."

You packed your bags like Grandpa told you. The morning you left, while you were trying to say goodbye to your mother, who was crying in the kitchen, your grandpa came in with good news. "You know the guy who busted your face? They lifted him ninety feet in the air on the end of a crane and dropped him on the floor of a living room paved with tiles from Caltagirone . . . There wasn't a roof on the house yet, that's why the crane was there. Now," he said, smiling, "they can't scrape the blood off because the guy's melted into the tiles."

You coughed again.

"You gave him milk, didn't you?" your grandpa said to your mother. "You shouldn't give him milk in the morning. It's bad for the stomach." Then he turned back to you. "Look, Lou," he said, "it wasn't our fault, the guy was a dickhead, he should have asked your name before he hit you, sooner or later he was going to end up on a Caltagirone floor, if it hadn't been us, it would have been somebody else . . ."

Your grandpa looked at your mother like he was hoping she'd back him up, but your mother shook her head, as if to say, That didn't come out right . . . so then your grandpa said, "I mean . . . if it hadn't been somebody else, it would have been us . . . how about that?" Your mother shook her head again, he still hadn't got it right, and your grandpa thought about it some more. "They're all fucking idiots . . . anyhow it wasn't us. Did you pack your bags?"

Fucking film school! The first thing they did when you got to Los Angeles was give you the books and teach you how to launder money.

The safest way was to buy or build little theaters in the suburbs all over America, hundreds of little theaters. They didn't cost much because all you needed was a garage or a Quonset hut, sometimes not even that. You bought a piece of land, put a fence around it, put up a screen with a projector and a box office, and painted the words drive-in on a wooden board. You made a few movies, showed them, and even if nobody went, you sent a courier with a briefcase full of money to buy all the tickets for a week, you paid taxes regularly on the take, the courier came back the next week, and "the fucking bacons"—that's what the guy who showed you the ropes called the cops—"can't do a fucking thing to you, because when you go to a movie nobody asks to see your ID . . . This is clean cash from decent people."

"Clean cash from decent people": the same words Leonard Trent used when he buttonholed you in your office one day a few years later.

Leonard Trent . . . that crazy cocksucker of a director who worked for Starship Pictures ("Sounds better than Sciortino Productions," your grandpa had said, with admirable modesty), the idiot who'd found out how the family was laundering money because he had a spinster cousin in Pennsylvania and because he was banging his accountant's secretary!

His cousin had gone to see his movie seven days in a row because she considered it her duty, especially since the theater was always empty . . . "It's not your fault," she said, trying to reassure her cousin the director, "it's those turds in Pennsylvania: they're so provincial, they don't give a flying fuck about art."

Leonard had moaned about it to Molly, one of his accountant's secretaries, while he was massaging her ankle, and Molly had told him, "That's impossible, your movies do very well in Pennsylvania. In fact, they do well everywhere."

"So I said to myself, either my cousin is putting me on or my movies are part of a front . . ."

When Trent buttonholed you in your office, you thought how lucky he was he'd found you behind that desk, because if your grandpa had been there instead he would have taken a gun out of the middle drawer and shot him in the forehead, just for coming in without knocking. But you wanted to be a businessman. The guy was probably planning to blackmail you, and it was the first time something like this had happened, so you were curious to see how far this dickhead wanted to go. Besides, there was plenty of time to shoot him later.

"Go on, I'm listening . . ."

"Okay. Now, you don't know my cousin, but she adores me, right? She's not married, she lives in some one-horse town in Pennsylvania because she's got nothing else to do with her life, and I'm her cousin who makes movies, right? So when my cousin finally gets me on the phone, after she's been told twenty times I'm not there (I do it for my image), and tells me, with rage and indignation in her voice, that the theater was empty seven days in a row, well, you can be sure she's telling me the goddamn truth. You follow me?"

"More or less."

"Right. Now, before you take the .22 out of the middle drawer of your desk and shoot me (because if you're going to shoot me in your office you'd better not use anything bigger than a .22 or you'll get blood on the rug and stain your jacket), just give me a fucking minute. I DON'T GIVE A FUCK where the money comes from or what the fuck you do to get it clean. I make pictures and I want my pictures to get made and all the good things that go with it: I want a good percentage of the take, and I don't give a fuck how it gets to me, or who the money belongs to. I mean, sure, now I know the money's dirty and you're using my pictures to clean it, but what the hell? Why the fuck should I care? I mean, someone else could be paying me dirty money and I wouldn't even know it. This money I happen to know is covered in shit, but so what? Am I supposed to go out looking for money that's clean? There's this kid in one of my pictures, he wears an undershirt and a leather jacket, he's got this line, 'Man, was there ever a clean dollar bill?' There sure as shit might be, but I for one haven't got the time to hunt it down, I have some pictures to make, and for the moment dirty money will do me just fine. And if you think I give a fuck, you got the wrong guy. I'm not clean, you—no offense—aren't clean, and the money that goes through this dump isn't any cleaner than we are, but just in case I haven't made myself clear, I. Do. Not. Give. A. Fuck. That's why you and I should team up and see if we can't make this fucking money even cleaner. What do you say?"

"Nothing, I'm listening."

"Right. So what I want now is to make a picture with lots of special effects, we can hire some of these young guys who are good with computers that make special effects, and we pay them salaries, then whatever the customers pay the company, they can't ask any questions, right? Because they're on salary. You own the special effects company, you're the customer, you run it the way you want, we buy the computers and all that modern shit and I make my fucking picture with special effects, except for the exploding skyscraper, I want that to be real, not done on the computer. You follow me so far?"

You nodded.

"Here's the deal with the skyscraper. The basic idea is, they want a fucking love story, I'll give them one, I'll give them one and then some. So listen. He's rich and handsome, a father figure, she's poor, she's unlucky, she's nothing much to look at now, but only because she's let herself go. The two of them meet and fall in love. Not right away, maybe twenty minutes in. Okay? Then along comes obstacle number one . . ."

"Obstacle number one?"

"Sure. First they meet, and there's your first hook—will they or won't they? But of course they will, so it's not much of a hook, just enough to keep the audience in their seats. So they meet, they fall in love, and everyone breathes a sigh of relief, Aaahhh, that's good! They've fallen in love, I knew they were going to fall in love! At this point, it's time for obstacle number one. Like, for instance, she runs off with his best friend, a top plastic surgeon with a clinic in South America. What a whore, you're thinking, but as it turns out, she isn't in love with the surgeon after all. Even worse, you're thinking, but no. Later we find out the surgeon's been jealous of his friend since they were children. They went to one of those schools for little assholes, you know, and the little girls always gave his friend candy but never him. So his friend ended up with all this candy the girls gave him, while he had to make do with stamps, right? So now he wants the girl. The girl herself is innocent, in fact she's clueless. What does she know from high society? It would never occur to her that a top plastic surgeon could have his own problems and feel such jealousy over a bunch of candy. She looks up to him. So the surgeon tricks her, he tells her if she really wants to hold on to his friend, she needs to have some work done. And obviously, he knows his friend's tastes, so he can tell her what she needs to do. So he takes her to South America, where he's got this well-equipped clinic. In the well-equipped clinic, obviously, the surgeon tries to get it on with her, but it passes right over her head, she's so intent on the man she loves, she doesn't even notice the surgeon is putting on the moves, can you see how frustrating that is for him? Here he is trying to get in her pants and she's oblivious. Okay, so now the surgeon decides to get his revenge, he operates on her and after he's operated on her he tries to rape her, to defile her. He doesn't get violent until he takes off the bandages and she says, 'Wow! I've turned out really great. I can't wait to leave here and go back to the man I love,' and she starts to pack her bags. He tries to rape her and she runs away through the streets of this South American city, since now she realizes she put herself in the wrong hands. But in the meantime the man she loves is desperate, because she didn't tell him she was going to South America, she kept it hidden because the surgeon told her his friend liked surprises, and she believed him, 'That's great,' she says, 'I like surprises, too!' and she's clapping her hands and jumping up and down, you see the kind of girl she is? So all the time they're in South America he's desperate, he thinks they've run away together and so on. He starts to drink, and I mean drink. And basically, he doesn't shave, doesn't change his shirt. So he's got this scraggly beard, his collar's filthy, and he walks around the streets of the city with a bottle in his hand. And the friends who meet him on the streets of this ritzy neighborhood say, 'Hey . . . hey . . .' What should we call him? Something refined. Ernest. Ernest, that's a good name for the cocksucker. So his friends meet him on the street and go, 'Ernest . . . Hey, Ernest . . .' they hardly recognize him, right? Ernest was always so elegant. 'Ernest . . .' and he looks at them like they don't exist and just keeps on walking. Then, to emphasize how he doesn't care about anything anymore, you know, I put in some gore, for instance he's walking along the street and this pet shop gets blown up by a bomb with all the customers inside. And he's walking over these little pieces of poodle without even noticing. From time to time he takes a swig from the bottle. Then he decides to end it all. He goes into his skyscraper, because he owns a skyscraper, and rides up to the top floor. Except that . . . except that just as he's about to jump he sees this taxi pull up, and who should get out but her . . . Because he isn't just rich, handsome, intelligent, and powerful, he's also got a heart of gold, so he's brought this pair of binoculars, to make sure he isn't about to flatten anybody when he jumps.

"Cut to her. She's running across this vast lobby, the lobby of the skyscraper, with her heels making, you know, a racket on the shiny marble floor, heading for the elevator. She's devastated, body and soul. She's got lips like a life preserver, a nose like a playground slide, and tits so big they look like they're going to burst. In her soul she's devastated by the things she saw in South America, the way the surgeon deceived her, how she was mistreated by the nurses, and apart from that, there was a massacre on the streets, they killed five innocent people right before her very eyes. So she can't wait for the man she loves to take her in his arms and console her. And even though she's devastated, she can't resist giving herself the once-over in the elevator mirror, you can see how heartbreaking that is, she's devastated by what she's seen, but inside she's still afraid the man she loves won't like her.

"Cut to the surgeon, brooding. He's eaten up with anger because she rejected his advances and ran away. When they first arrived in South America, the surgeon was really a very pleasant person, and kind to the switchboard operators and the people working in the clinic, so kind that she thought, What a good man he is, but now, after she's escaped, he changes, and loses his temper with the switchboard operators, he's consumed with anger. I forgot to mention that while he's operating on her, he's got this sinister look in his eyes, and all the women in the audience, who can see how disappointed he is, are afraid he'll kill her with the scalpel, or else scar her face, or put her nose where her mouth oughta be and vice versa. But it's just a sinister look in his eyes: when he takes off the bandages and everything's gone well, with everything in the right place, the women in the audience heave a sigh of relief . . . aaahhh. But there's still this nagging doubt. Why did the surgeon have that sinister look in his eyes if he didn't scar her? Could it be …? In the meantime, the movie continues, are you with me?"

"Go on."

"Okay, so she's in the elevator, and we cut to the surgeon, who's brooding. And when he stops brooding, you know what he does? He sneers. That's what the surgeon does: sneers.

"Cut to the elevator. There's this catchy music in the background, catchy, but calm and relaxing. So, la la la.

"Cut to the surgeon, who's sneering and looking at an X-ray. The camera tracks in and we see the surgeon's got a remote in his hand.

"Cut to the elevator door opening. The lovers' eyes meet. They run to each other, fall into each other's arms, and kiss. Then he looks in her eyes, notices how she's changed, and says, like somebody who's found himself back in the Garden of Eden, 'Darling, I've always loved surprises.'

"Cut to the wicked surgeon, sneering, and pressing the button on the remote control.

"Cut to an exterior shot of the skyscraper, we see the top of the skyscraper explode.

"Cut to the X-ray: the wicked surgeon has filled her tits with plastic explosive! The bastard."

"Your movie is shit!"

"Spare me your fucking opinion, Lou! What are you, some cocksucker from The New Yorker? No. You're just a good kid who's going to build me a skyscraper. And you know why?"


"Because I'm going to blow the top off for my picture, and then you're going to sell what's left to a different company. For peanuts, because after all it hasn't got a top and there's not a whole lot of market for topless buildings, then all you have to do is rebuild the top and get yourself some tenants, and on paper your first company's lost money by underselling a skyscraper that was fine even when it didn't have a top. Your money's clean and I get to make my picture, Plastic Love . . . What do you think of the title?"

"It's a shit title," you said. "But the idea isn't bad . . ."

Excerpted from Who is Lou Sciortino? by Ottavio Cappellani; translated from the Italian by Howard Curtis. Copyright © 2004 by Neri Pozza Editore, Vicenza. Translation copyright © 2007 by Howard Curtis. Published in May 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

Meet the Author

Ottavio Cappellani is a journalist with a daily column in La Sicilia. He lives in Catania, Sicily, where he writes for several other Italian newspapers, fronts a post-punk band, and cultivates carob trees and olives. Who Is Lou Sciortino? is his first novel.

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