A Man of Honor – Joseph Bonanno – Book Review

Joseph Bonanno Biography - Facts, Childhood, Family Life, Crimes

Joseph Bonanno in all his Glory

A Man of Honor, written by Joseph Bonanno in 1983, was as self-serving, idealistic and revisionist as any book can possibly be. Yet it is a real privilege to have this manuscript in existence. Despite reading books written by Acting Bosses and Underbosses, it wasn’t until I finished this book that I realized how narrow their perspective was on the Mafia, not being able to articulate what it was that they were willing to kill for. Born into a prominent Mafia Family in Sicily, Joseph Bonanno had the viewpoint and the perception to express just what the Mafia is supposed to be and how that resulted in a special criminal organization that has lasted despite the pressure it endured. The book offered insight into the history of the Tradition, interesting commentaries on both the Mafia and society at large and is very philosophical and romantic regarding Joe Bonanno’s life. Anyone seeking war stories and explanations of criminal rackets will be rather disappointed. Indeed, even the truth was not necessarily Bonanno’s objective when writing this book. Rather Joseph was interested in expressing a certain message to readers. One should go into this like if you were to read a book pontificating on philosophy: prepare for a lot of baloney to read a few interesting ideas. Nevertheless, since this book was written by a Boss and a founding member of the Commission at that, slogging through the BS is more than worth it. After all, Joseph Bonanno was the Boss of a New York crime family that still bears his name, what more reason does one need to pick this book up?

I think it’s important to highlight Joseph Bonanno was not entirely truthful in his intentions or actions and that reflects in the final product. He had decades to think about his activities and this unquestionably leads to a lot of revision if not outright fabrication of certain events. His life is filled with coincidences that just so happened to lead to cataclysmic changes in his life for which he had time to think for plausible explanations. Despite being one of Maranzano’s closest allies, he conveniently stops seeing his patron in the months leading up to the Boss of Bosse’s death. It is convenient because Joe Bonanno was one of the people who stood to gain the most from it as he was quickly promoted to the position of Father at the tender age of 26. It was just an accident that Bill Bonanno sat in Joseph Magliocco’s car as the latter was talking to one of Colombo’s liaisons about bumping off Commission members like Carlo Gambino and Thomas Lucchese. The Commission becomes a farce as soon as Joseph Bonanno lost influence over it. Yet honestly, the only people bothered by it are those who don’t pay attention. Joseph Bonanno is transparent about his views as to the importance of truth to a story. Very early on Joseph used the tale of the Sicilian Vespers as an allegory towards how he sought to express his own story. To Bonanno, the veracity of the story wasn’t important, rather it was the message it carried about the portrayal and exemplification of the Sicilian spirit. This book is less about what Joe’s life actually was and more about what it should be perceived as in the eyes of the reader. It’s about getting a certain message, perspective, and morals across about what the Tradition was and how the drift into the classic American nuclear family, individualism, and the changing societal values corrupted it over time. His personal story is just a vessel for that. Maybe that’s the life Joe wishes he led as he reminiscences about the past. Thus, the details of events like the ‘Banana War’ are glossed over in favour of Joe delivering a certain philosophical thought to the reader.  

I usually do not pay much attention to book covers, yet Bonanno’s stylized art intrigued me. Yellow evokes feelings of warmth and happiness. Joe knew that most people who picked up this book already felt a certain way towards him, and the cover was but one way to disarm that. His constant references to his orphanhood and harassment by law enforcement were yet more ways. Quite frequently, he used the common belief fallacy in echoing popular sentiments such as constant repetition of his belief that narcotics and extortion are harmful. In all, he pulls all the tricks in the book (pun intended) to make readers sympathize whereby in the end you can’t help but feel sort of bad for this caring old man who just wants to take care of his garden and enjoy his grandchildren. Manipulative? Quite so and Bonanno can be very persuasive at times. But you must snap out of it and remember this guy oversaw the largest drug trafficking organization on the planet. At least he isn’t shy about admitting he killed people, in a roundabout way of course.

Unfortunately, going in a reader must temper their expectations about how specific Bonanno can get legally. Being so apt at evading any serious convictions for over 30 years, Joe wasn’t going to just willingly incriminate himself or make himself look like a bad person. However, it was astonishing how much detail he could convey even when speaking in generalities. The greatest parts of this book were when he was talking about Commission politics, how Families were structured, how the Fathers’ held their Borgatas together and the lore behind it all. One of the most interesting discussions was how mobsters named the organization or rather process that is “the Mafia”. The term La Cosa Nostra used to describe that thing of theirs popularized by Joseph Valachi and one both law enforcement and gangsters use today was not as universal as I thought. This is but one of many discussions more contemporary mobsters just cannot comment on which differentiates this book from others in the genre. Bonanno’s vantage point and knowledge are nearly unmatched. Mafiosi like John Pennisi or Salvatore Gravano just accepted the term Cosa Nostra on its face value and had no insight as to its origin or why they even used that particular term. Vincent Mangano, one-time Boss of the Gambino Crime Family, referred to the Mafia as La Cosa Nostra, others as the Tradition, other more as L’onorata Società, and others still as the Union Siciliano. Bonanno highlighted this to show that no universal name existed because there was no universal organization to name. Each is a reference to a process between men rather than a monolithic institution. It’s a set of customs and a code of conduct, that can guide any individual regardless of the business one operates in. A rather philosophic description, sure, but an interesting thought, nonetheless. It raises interesting questions as to whether the Mafia is more than just a criminal organization and why this society has lasted for centuries at this point. Bonanno’s early life in Sicily sheds light on the origins of the Mafia and one can see how it was never going to succeed long-term in America in its idealized form. According to Bonanno, a man of honour is simply a broker, a personified nexus of connections who uses it for legal and illicit gains. Given the tribal nature of Sicily with the lack of intelligibility between neighbouring towns, a barely functioning judicial system and the clannish and guarded nature of family interaction, one could see how such conditions were fertile grounds for a Mafia organization to spring up. People lacking connections because of how insular their families were dependent on someone who had a network. Lacking an effective judicial system, people started to rely on select individuals with the means to dispense justice. In a way, the Mafia was just a perverted by-product of the old feudal system combined with the last vestiges of the Roman Patron-Client relationship system.

Undoubtedly the politics of the Mafia, both internal and between Families was the highlight of the book. Being able to read about the political history that led up to the Castellammarese War, the national Mafia conferences held at its conclusion or Commission meetings setting policy was a rewarding experience. My favourite story unquestionably was that of Lucchese’s plot to kill Albert Anastasia. The political intrigues and manoeuvring these Bosses played was fascinating to read about as each jockeyed for power and influence over other Bosses and the Commission at large. Joe is also not shy about discussing the immense pressure Bosses faced. It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, from the politics of maintaining one’s Family to Commission intrigues and the ever-intensifying pressure of the FBI and Government, it was a stressful life. Not to mention the fall-out on their children and relatives. Since Bonanno can’t really talk about concrete illegal activities besides a passing mention of bookmaking here or loansharking there, a set of relationships and their evolving story underpin the narrative of the book. While Bonanno’s relationship with Salvatore Maranzano was quite interesting to read about, I have to say I found the Bonanno-Magaddino relation to be the most noteworthy. Largely, the gradual conflict between Bonanno and Magaddino is the main plot of the book. The kidnapping event is certainly the climax of that relationship. Reading it at first it was hard to believe Bonanno staged his own kidnapping. His conversations with Stefano seemed real, as real as any conversations the readers were privy to before. Indeed, there is much detail and description, the thought that Bonanno made it all up seemed far fetched. And yet, Bonanno is a capable storyteller as previously noted. Once again, Bonanno doesn’t want the readers to get bogged down in the factual exactness of the event, but rather take away the meaning that’s conveyed from its representation. I think what readers are meant to take away from Bonanno’s version of his kidnapping story is that his relationship with Magaddino was a microcosm for the health of the Tradition. Magaddino was concerned about vanity, his power and prestige, contrary to what Bonanno supposedly “preached”. The Tradition was losing its unity and ability to unite Family members as individuals started to become more and more concerned about themselves. Instead of applauding Bonanno on all of his success, Magaddino grew envious to the point where they no longer trusted each other. “Our thing” turned into “my thing”. Of course, readers must keep in mind that actual history points towards the fact that Bonanno tried to seize control of the Commission and one of the people that he wanted to cross out were his cousin Stefano. Even after his “retirement”, Bonanno managed to keep readers engaged with his surprisingly fun writing style and life in Tucson, Arizona. From the bombing plot by FBI Agent David Hale to his thoughts about other Mafia books like Gay Talese’s Honor Thy Father, life for Bonanno was always exciting, even after he started collecting Social Security checks.

The worst thing about this book however was not the absence of Carmine Galante or Bonanno’s making ceremony, rather it is the publishing date. Written during some of the most tumultuous times in his life, the frustration and anger jump off the page. Yet I wish the book was written just a bit later, or maybe if he had penned a postscript in subsequent editions to reflect the fallout of A Man of Honor’s publication on gangland. Being famously used by zealous prosecutors as a blueprint for how the Commission operated in cases that led to convictions of New York’s top bosses, I wonder if Bonanno regretted his penmanship. Or maybe he didn’t, but I would have loved to read his thoughts on that too.

I know I wrote this in a different style than usual, but it’s hard to separate the best and worst parts of this book since they are both Joseph Bonanno. It’s a unique book in the sense that perhaps it has more fantasy than Lord of the Rings, but the insights and perspective it provides on Mafia lore are unmatched. Bonanno’s integrity is paradoxical. Refraining from using made-up quotes, he distinguished words spoken from memory by designating them with a dash as opposed to quotation marks. An act like that sheds more credence upon his work, yet at the same time, he revised and perhaps made-up history to suit his own selfish needs. Yet who are we but walking contradictions ourselves? In that sense doesn’t a hypocritical book not capture the essence of a hypocritical man best?