by Nicholas Pileggi
320 pages, Pocket
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
“Greed is good” Wall Street’s loathsome Gordon Gecko once said and if one looks at the history of the USA, it is possible to see that the Great American Dream is built on the rather shaky foundations of greed, brutality and ruthlessness.
Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy recounts the tumultuous life of Henry Hill, a New York hood whose time working within one of the city’s mafia families saw him involved in arson, extortion, hijacking, fraud, drug dealing, gun running and murder. So colourful and thrilling was Pileggi’s account of Hill’s life of crime that Martin Scorsese filmed the book as Goodfellas one of the most critically acclaimed gangster movies of all time. Gecko’s legendary words can almost be seen as a mantra by which Henry Hill and his cronies lived by. Whatever they wanted, they took. If anyone complained, they’d receive a beating. If they were stupid enough to complain a second time, they would receive a bullet in the back of the head. Greed fuelled everything Hill did and Pileggi pulls no punches when describing the lengths the wiseguys would go to in pursuit of the almighty dollar. Most disturbing of all is that Hill’s greed served him very well for much of his criminal career, right up to the moment he joined the witness protection programme and ratted out his former associates.
I’m normally wary of true-crime books and I can’t think of more than a handful I have read cover to cover. Being a fan of the Goodfellas movie, I knew what to expect from Pileggi’s book and I found myself quickly drawn into the seedy, violent world of the New York mafia in the 60s and 70s. The book starts with young Henry’s introduction to the crime families at the tender age of eleven when he started running errands for a local cab firm with strong mafia ties. By thirteen he had given up on school and was already gaining an understanding of the complex machinations of the criminal underworld.
Henry’s own relatively poor childhood seems to have been the root of his greed. When opportunities arose for him to have money, cars, expensive jewelry and cheap girls, he embraced them without a second thought. Hill was no hoarder of wealth. Pileggi writes how thousands would be earned by criminal means only to be frittered away just as quickly. Expensive nightclubs, a taste for fine food and booze and reckless gambling meant that whilst many of the gangsters were big spenders, they had to keep up their criminal activities in order to finance their extravagant lifestyles.
Pileggi’s direct, no-nonsense depictions of Hill’s wild life are supplemented by lengthy quotes from Hill himself and his wife Karen. Their own voices leap straight off the page and give the almost unbelievable tales of excess and cruelty a grounding in reality. I surprised myself how much I enjoyed reading Wiseguy and I’d wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone. It’s not a demanding read and there is something strangely compelling in Pileggi’s account of Hill’s outlandish criminal exploits.
It’s impossible to condone the actions of Hill and his cronies. Their limitless greed meant that laws were broken, families were destroyed and lives were lost. If this was a work of fiction, one could criticise it for being a bit far-fetched. The truth, they say, is stranger than fiction and in the case of Wiseguy, Nicholas Pileggi presents us with a strange tale in a terrifying world that is, unfortunately, all too real. Greed isn’t good, but it makes for a damn good read.
Hereward L.M. Proops