WISEGUY: LIFE IN A MAFIA FAMILY by Nicholas Pileggi (Simon & Schuster: $17.95; 247 pp.).
Yes, Virginia, there is a Mafia, and they're not the mythic figures of "The Godfather," nor the cartoony cliches of prime-time television. They are a class of career criminals with a long history purveying anything that society outlaws and enforcing their subculture's code with violence.
The Virgil on this tour of the underworld is Henry Hill. From age 11, when he landed a part-time job at a mob cabstand, to 1980, when he turned 36, and state's evidence, Hill was a mob jack-of-all-trades. Unlike most wiseguys, who tend to specialize, Hill dabbled in gambling, drug dealing, fraud, union racketeering, loan-sharking, extortion, arson, armed robbery and murder.
Major crimes that Hill was involved in include the 1978 heist of $5.9 million dollars at Lufthansa Airlines (which lead to 10 murders as the thieves quarreled) and the Boston College basketball point-shaving scandal.
Pileggi, a former colleague of mine at New York magazine, has done a superb job at chronicling the day-to-day life of a mid-level wiseguy. The schemes and scams by which Hill bends and beats the system make for fascinating reading.