BOOK REVIEW / Mud sticks to Teflon Don: 'The War Against the Mafia' - Tim Shawcross: Mainstream, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
BRECHT'S famous wheeze was to portray politicians as mirror images of gangsters, and there is evidence in Tim Shawcross's book to support this notion. Just to recap, for those who never saw The Godfather, there are five New York Families, named (in reality) Gambino, Bonnano, Lucchese, Genovese and de Cavalcante. Each has its own hierarchy of godfather, consigliere, underbosses, capos and footsoldiers (aka 'wiseguys' or 'made men'). Disputes between the families are sorted out by meetings of the 'Commission', at which rules of demarcation are agreed, successors to deceased or imprisoned family bosses are confirmed and transgressors ('rats') receive the death sentence.

The Family members know that the glue which holds them together is the respect given by those down the hierarchy to those further up. At one point we find the following exchange - recorded by FBI surveillance - between three senior mafiosi, John Gotti, Angelo Ruggiero and Neil 'the Lamb' Dellacroce. They are wrestling with the eternal problems of treachery and authority.

'Angelo,' said Gotti. 'What does Cosa Nostra mean?'

'Cosa Nostra means that the boss is your boss . . . (But) tell me to set one of my best friends up, I won't do it.' . . .

'You ain't talking Cosa Nostra now.'

A little later, Dellacroce breaks in: 'What I'm trying to say is, a boss is a boss. What does a boss mean in this fuckin' thing? You may as well take anybody off the fuckin' street.'

This reads like a Youth-Theatre modernisation of Shakespeare: 'Take but degree away . . .' And it reflects, of course, one of the oldest preoccupations of Western culture: that mystical authority of kingship which compels subjects to choose their rulers' interests over their own. The exchange shows that the Mob are capable of seeing their system as political, a way of brokering power according to recognised rules of authority and loyalty - in fact, a government.

Shawcross cuts his material from thousands of miles of FBI surveillance tapes and his own interviews with renegade mafiosi. He centres on the crisis in the mid-1980s in the Gambino family, who were faced with challenges from fresh Sicilian immigration, from heroin trafficking and from a new FBI campaign against them. Then their Godfather Paul 'the Pope' Castellano was riddled with bullets outside a 46th Street steak- house and his throne usurped by John Gotti, the strutting 'Teflon Don' who constantly evaded the Feds. Finally, however, Gotti was arrested, tried, convicted on the evidence of rats and FBI bugs and is now serving a 100-year sentence.

With such material, this could have been a classic in the tradition of F D Pasley's Al Capone. Sadly, it is not. In the rambling narrative the characters are never properly delineated. Nor is Shawcross's word-craft better than his narrative skill. And although (like many TV journalists) he enjoys the word 'ironically', he never uses it to literary effect. But this is a tie-in to a TV documentary, so it is perhaps foolish to expect a real book. Many would rather have Mario Puzo; I'd rather have Pasley.