“Average Joe thrusted into upper middle management”
What made the book so enjoyable to me is just how average Alfonse “Little Al” D’Arco was. In many ways, his story reminded me of The Sopranos Season 1. Much like Tony, Al D’Arco seemed to be a middle-aged dad dealing with “regular people” problems, who just so happened to be a mobster. Al spent just as much time flipping burgers on his stand as he did in the criminal underworld. He was worried about paying next month’s rent. His kids got into constant trouble. He dealt with problematic “co-workers”. He just seemed so normal, and that’s what made me so invested in his story. But Al D’Arco was not a regular guy, far from it. He was a mobster. Yet even in that he mostly failed. It took him eight years to finally get his button from the date of his proposal. He constantly ran into trouble with failed schemes, hijackings, drug deals, and the law. His one personal murder was a mess. He was a “brokester” until he wasn’t. By sheer attrition, family connections, and luck Al got promoted to captain and then Acting Boss. Weirdly enough, that just made the book and Al just that much more endearing. Mob Boss, written in 2013 by Jerry Capeci and Tom Robbins, is as insightful on La Cosa Nostra as a book can be and should be a required curriculum for those seeking to know more about the mafia. I wanted to break down my thoughts into: The Good, The Bad, and John Pennisi.
Much like the first Hangover movie, Mob Boss beings with the climax, then takes the readers back in time to see how it all unfolded. The authors masterfully draw the readers in, and you can’t help but flip through the pages to find out what happened next. And what a story did Al D’Arco have!
In contrast to Michael Franzese’s luxurious lifestyle powered by high-level racketeering schemes, or Sammy Gravano’s reign as the angel of death over the Gambino’s, Al D’Arco reminds readers what life was really like for the rank-and-file button man. This was achieved by Jerry and Tom’s strategic use of different POVs which made Al’s life look more three-dimensional. We get to see how his exploits impacted his wife’s life, the lives of his children, and how he was a ghost to law enforcement. Early on we are treated to a funny story about the willful ignorance mob wives employ regarding their husbands’ line of “work”. Always ready to demonstrate his loyalty to life, Al would hide a pistol under the spare tire in the car’s trunk. On his third date with Dolores, Al pulled a spare from the trunk to change his flat tire. Out-came the gun flying and hitting the ground loudly in front of her. Annoying at its sight, all she said was to throw it out. Likewise, his son had it rough growing up with a father who kept visiting one of Uncle Sam’s out-of-state colleges. Joseph was often left for himself to fend off bullies who hounded him for his father’s gangsterism. Unfortunately, he followed Al into becoming a member of La Cosa Nostra and we get to see how that almost destroyed his life. We get to see “the life” for what it really was to most members. There was no glory in it. It wasn’t the Hollywood lifestyle they dreamed about. They were barely scraping by, living week to week off scores. Al’s family, for instance, was forced to live off welfare. This daily struggle to survive made Al D’Arco just that much more real and he became someone you could almost root for?
Because Alphonse didn’t attain “success” and a high rank early on, readers spent a great deal of time alongside Al as he worked the traditional mob rackets and scams. Growing up in his father’s dye factory, Al D’Arco vowed to not be a square and aspired to be a gangster because it meant you were somebody. It reminded me of the Goodfellas quote, “Ever since I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster.” We get to see in full detail how the mob ran its gambling dens, dealt with loansharking, committed arson-for-hire, hijacked all kinds of goods, and so much more. We also saw how pervasive the heroin trade was. Everyone and anyone was dealing babania. Al didn’t make too much in the drug trade, although not for a lack of trying. During Al’s ceremony, the “no drugs” rule was repeated. Two months later his caporegime, Paul Vario, asked him to help with a cocaine deal. While mobsters hid their involvement in junk in earlier times, things got so out of hand that Vic Amuso and Anthony Casso were dealing even as the bosses of the Borgata. For anyone seeking to learn and understand what the day-to-day life of “average” mobsters was and how they operated their scams, this is the book for you.
The readers also got to understand how the Mafia permeated every fabric of society during its heyday. To my astonishment, the Lucchese Crime Family controlled twenty unions in and around New York City. From the Garment District to the JFK airport, the tentacles of La Cosa Nostra reached far and wide and its grip on the city was tight. It had made members appointed as union delegates, it was in bed with politicians and they regularly bribed judges. From bogus unions that existed only to extort business, to legitimate unions whose pensions and medical plans were raided, the Mafia had it all. While most other books glossed over union racketeering and boiled it down to free money every month, Mob Boss goes into extensive detail on the intricacies of different scams and payoff schemes. Since Al D’Arco was mostly a grunt for his entire mob career, we actually get to see those scams in action and how he developed different tactics to deal with different business owners. There was a particularly funny incident that showed even the Mafia’s limit in its ability to control. Getting a tad overzealous, Al D’Arco and his mob pals tried to pull one of their extortion tricks on cosmetics giant Estée Lauder. They tried to perform the informational-picketing scam where they pretended that members went on strike which made things difficult for a company. The end goal was not to unionize, but get a fat payoff to bugger off. Out came Estée Lauder’s representative, but instead of bringing them an envelope full of cash, he handed them their lawyer’s business card. It read, “United States Justice Department, attorney general.” Al and his cronies were gone in minutes. For those who are interested in the Mafia’s intimate knowledge of union racketeering, Mob Boss spares no detail.
What I also particularly liked is just how alive and diverse the mob felt in this book. Reading other Mafia books, you can sometimes forget that other crime families exist, but in Mob Boss, we get to see those famed interactions and sit-downs. Despite being on record with the Lucchese’s, Al worked a lot with the Genovese Crime Family and developed a deep relationship with The Chin. Gigante trusted Al so much that he once said, “Hello” to him. We, also, see how things were not always smooth between the families as with Pete DeFeo’s (Genovese capo) encroachment onto JFK Airport. Negotiations got heated and the Lucchese’s were not scared to pull the same bag of tricks on fellow made man as they did with their civilian victims. We also see just how diverse the criminal underworld was. The story introduced us to Jewish gangsters and crooks, Irish brutes, and Albanian thugs who all played a large role in helping the Italians control their vast illegal holdings. The naming of chapters for different locations in New York also made the city itself feel alive, a being that had a character of its own. Jerry and Tom just made Al’s world feel so alive, so real.
The book offered a tremendous amount of detail on the mob and its many vivid characters. But what may at first glance seemed like a strength, in fact, turned into the book’s greatest weakness by slowing down the story and sometimes losing sight of its central character: Al D’Arco. The authors overindulged themselves and got carried away in providing information on characters, small and large, that otherwise had little to no long-term impact on Al D’Arco’s arc. Seasoned authors like Capeci should know better than to show off their Mafia knowledge in an attempt to build credibility with the readers. Instead of staying focused on the main character, Jerry and Tom veered off into tangents about other mob players for pages to the point where one forgets that this was supposed to be a biography on Al D’Arco and not a Mafia encyclopedia. Sure, some readers may find that attractive, but it slowed down the narrative and made it a tedious read at times. I had to stop multiple times just to understand what is going on.
Like any mob book, we must keep in mind that mobsters seek to sanitize their image and portray themselves as sympathetic characters. Given that Al D’Arco did not have control over the final manuscript, this problem is mitigated to an extent although not completely absent. Al D’Arco loved the idea of being a gangster and even in his old age said he would give anything to not live like a “normie”. His parting words to the authors during their debriefings reminded me of another Goodfellas quote, “I’m an average nobody. I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.” And so to justify his betrayal against the life he loved, he had to rationalize that Amuso and Casso backstabbed him. Al stated that Vic Amuso went from a man who doubted himself to one that went on a killing frenzy, paranoid about competitors to satiate his greed. They killed and took over the dumping rackets of Mikey Salerno (Lucchese capo) and Mike Pappadio’s (Lucchese soldier) Garment District business. Of course, Al told the writers that he was unhappy about how the bosses dealt with Family affairs. Yet reading between the lines I think it’s clear he was fine with that arrangement. He clearly didn’t think his bosses would “turn” on him due to his strong relationship with Vic. And now with all these strong capos/soldiers getting clipped and sidelined, Al D’Arco’s power and influence within the Family grew. By taking out any would-be rivals, Al was making himself indispensable to the bosses. He only had to survive until Vic and Gaspipe were inevitably captured and shipped off to prison to become the undisputed power within the Family. Of course, Al flew a little bit too close to the sun and the bosses put out a hit on him too. What he was fine with when done to others, came back to haunt him. Some poetic justice if you ask me. But his characterization of the bosses doesn’t jive with the current day Lucchese situation. If Vic was such a bad Boss, so greedy and vicious, why are people still willing to die for him? Why does his wife get hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to gamble away in Atlantic City? Why is he not a figurehead Boss? Well, it’s clear Al D’Arco made Vic look worse off than he probably was to make himself look better than he perhaps was.
Although this is a minor nitpick, I do have to state my disappointment regarding content around the Pittsburgh Crime Family. Within the first two pages, we are told Al had the chance to be made in Pittsburgh, since the books were closed in New York, which made it seem like it had a major role to play in upcoming events. And yet, mentions of the Family are few and far between, and by the second half of the book, Pittsburgh is but an afterthought. Al’s conflict of deciding if he should wait for the Lucchese’s or get made in Pittsburgh is resolved rather quickly and without much consequence. Maybe I got overzealous, but I really did think we would get some interesting personal insight into this smaller, lesser-known LCN Family. Another thing that was kind of hilarious to me is the idea of who was the most “important” Mafia witness. Somehow, Phil Leonetti, Sammy Gravano, and Alphonse D’Arco are all the most important witnesses to ever turn, sparking a domino effect that “brought down” La Cosa Nostra. At least according to their respective books. Mafia Prince said that Phil was the most important witness because he was the one who turned Sammy Gravano. The Bull told FBI agents during his debriefings that he knew he didn’t stand a chance when he heard Phil flip. Mob Boss said it was Al D’Arco that made Sammy turn. Underboss said that Sammy didn’t even hear about Phil turning and Al D’Arco flipping didn’t make him flinch. It was John Gotti’s betrayal that made him betray his oath. Whatever the case is, it is a bit tiresome to read. I understand this is one way the authors try to build up a mobster’s credibility and importance to readers, but it is annoying. Rather than making these bold statements right out of the gate, present the facts of the story and let readers decide.
John Pennisi is a controversial topic in the mob world. Some people find him interesting; others despise him. But what enhanced my reading experience was listening to John Pennisi’s videos about the modern Lucchese Borgata. In many ways, Mob Boss serves as the origin story to many of the characters J.P. talks about in his videos and I was pretty stoked with how many names I recognized. We get to read about how mobsters like Dom Truscello, Louie Daidone, and current acting boss Michael DeSantis got their start in the family. Even back then, they were a slippery bunch. A lot of parallels could be drawn between Al’s and John’s lives in the Family which I found kind of neat. All in all, it’s an important book in the annals of La Cosa Nostra even when it gets a bit tedious at times.
Thanks for reading! Next time we will see if mixing Harry Potter and the Mob is a recipe for success in Anthony Casso’s book Gaspipe: Confessions of a Mafia Boss.