“Harry Potter meets Emilio Barzini”
Going in, I did not expect the book’s preface to read like a BDSM erotica fanfiction. Images of Casso’s musculature and a “folded mushroom” are now permanently etched into my brain. It left me more confused than the boy’s locker room after an intense gym class. I was puzzled but intrigued. What exactly did I just sign up for? I found, Gaspipe: Confessions of a Mafia Boss written by Philip Carlo in 2009, to be the most conflicting Mafia book I have read so far. If you thought Sammy Gravano was in love with himself, you have seen nothing yet. The official author on the cover might say “Phil Carlo”, but make no mistake about it, this book was written by Anthony Casso for Anthony Casso. While we do get glimpses of the truth and honest motivations that fueled Gaspipe, too often we veer off reality into nonsensical fantasy and outright falsehoods. Ultimately, we get a cautionary tale about the consequences of abuse and mismanagement. Anthony Casso managed to destroy a thriving criminal enterprise within a couple of years by being greedy and abusive to his underlings. Gaspipe’s nightmares came alive when he passed without the respect of his peers and the benefits of a government cooperator. While the book itself is not very good, it almost has to be read out of respect to Casso’s stature and infamy in “the life” alone. I want to further break down my thoughts into The Good and The Bad.
One thing I really liked about this book was Anthony Casso being unashamed about why he joined La Cosa Nostra and all that came with it. It wasn’t due to family pressure or using it as a way to belong to something or even to gain respect and become an “honoured” man. Casso liked the flashy pinkie rings, the expensive suits, the luxury cars and the attention from women that Mafiosi in his neighbourhood enjoyed. Gaspipe enjoyed beating the system, both legitimate and illegitimate and joining the mob was the fastest path to amassing riches and brightening one’s future. While someone like Michael Franzese came across as almost feeling guilty when talking about his newfound wealth, Casso bragged about his sharkskin suits and his expensive wines unapologetically. It was like reading braggadocio rap in book form, Casso’s journey from “rags” to riches. We saw the high point and luxury of the Mafia life, the allure of it, the thrill. They could do anything; the rules didn’t apply. We saw how intoxicating it was and why the general public is so attracted to the idea of it. Our celebrities treated the Mafiosi as their celebrities. An honest dishonest upper class. Despite the many embellishments in the book, at least this part came across as extremely authentic.
Casso climbed to the top of the Luchese Crime Family not through creativity but through perfecting the tried-and-true mob rackets, robbery and narcotics trafficking. His Breaking and Entering (B&E) crew seemed like something out of Ocean’s 11. The diligence they took in scoping out and laying on a place for days on end shows true dedication. The book did go into the nitty-gritty detail in describing how that scheme operated and how lucrative theft was when you hit the right place. Casso loved to steal, he got giddy thinking about it. His narcotics business was also fairly well laid out. In true Casso fashion, however, he did have to make himself seem like this El Chapo type figure so I would take his figures and weights with a grain of salt. We got to see how over time Gaspipe scaled the business, figured out different ways to transport and distribute his product and ultimately how he was able to dodge indictments by having friends in the right places. In conjunction with Al D’Arco’s book, we get a full picture of all the main mob rackets in full detail.
I found this book incredibly funny, both in the anecdotes told, and unintentional funniness that came from the book’s blissful ignorance of its own irony. The story selection was great, and we get to hear amusing stories throughout Casso’s career as a criminal. Early on Casso got a no-show job thanks to the Genovese that allowed him to write off his food expenses. Getting an early taste for the best of foods and the best of wines, Casso and his posse abused the free meal policy so much that the company had to cancel it. Or how about his trip to Toys R Us to use a toy car remote control to detonate Frankie DeCicco. The funniest tale, however, was during a Commission meeting where John Gotti had to lie in front of Vincent Gigante and the rest about how hard he was looking for Big Paul’s killer. John did own a mirror, right? This mixing of comedy and morbidity was done quite well. The book is also unintentionally funny with the way things flew over Carlo’s head when he wrote this book. The author declared that Casso became the Robin Hood of Fifth Avenue – you know except for the part where he helped the poor. Or how about the Mafia being baffled at the influx of junkies populating their neighbourhoods. I guess it didn’t dawn on them that they created those drug addicts in the first place by flooding the streets with heroin and cocaine. These comedic highlights helped make up for some of the book’s more technical flaws.
Phil Carlo is not half the writer he seems to think he is. His sentence structuring was jarring, his metaphors were odd, and his declarations and summations were outright bizarre. The author tried to be poetic and assertive yet lacked the finesse to pull it off. Instead, Phil overindulged and lingered on things that didn’t matter, filled up pages with odd descriptions and strange word choices. He took every opportunity to aggrandize Casso which just come off as sounding weird. Take this quote for example, “He had a rock-hard body that was endemic to southern Italian males”. Phil Carlo’s obsession in highlighting Casso’s impressive physical and bodily features borderlines on inappropriate. A good chunk of this book seemed to have been lifted out of a novel dedicated to older bored stay-at-home moms. My favourite instance of Carlo’s bizarre writing was his declaration after certain events transpired. Seeing a junkie harass a woman in his neighbourhood, Casso took it upon himself to dispense some street justice. However, despite being told countless times about Casso’s Spetsnaz-tier marksmanship, Anthony failed to kill the junkie. Phil Carlo concluded this story by proclaiming that this incident chiseled in stone Gaspipe’s reputation for all the underworld to see. Really? Failing to kill a heroin creep is what sealed Casso’s reputation as a tough guy in the streets? Odd statements like that are peppered throughout the book and take away from the reading experience. Moreover, the book was riddled with weird time skips that muddled the chronology of events. I wish we had a smoother narrative because Phil Carlo jumped around the timeline like an Avenger. To add to this, the author weirdly repeated himself throughout the book and retold information we just read about a couple of pages ago. To me, that came off as clunky and a little amateurish. The editor should have definitely taken another pass at the manuscript and corrected for some of the more peculiar oddities in the book.
Much like Harry Potter, Anthony Casso portrayed himself as the chosen one. Similar to how the Three Wise Men greeted Jesus at his birth, emissaries made up of captains and underbosses from all the Five Families were dispatched to go and pay homage to Casso when it was time for him to be re-born as a brother in La Cosa Nostra. Did they kiss his pinkie ring too?
Carlo showered Casso with more compliments and positive adjectives than a pop star’s stan on Twitter. It is a book filled with adulation, praise, compliments, and whitewashing. The author had a weird habit of lingering and emphasizing Gaspipe’s “beautiful” facial features and contrasting them to all the ugly characters he encountered along the way. By denigrating everyone’s physical appearance and commenting on how unsightly their faces were, Casso was portrayed to be physically (if not symbolically) purer than those around him. Carlo did not hesitate to constantly describe Casso’s face during dialogue scenes, writing how, “… it brought a smile to his chiseled, handsome face”. Reading that was off-putting and kind of gross. Or how about Carlo’s revelations of Anthony’s inner beauty? You see, Anthony Casso was just misunderstood by the public. He was not a brute, but a gangster with a consciousness. He only stole from those who would not miss what was taken and only kill people that are in “the game”. Anthony had an unusual capacity for empathy, he was able to feel the pain, heartache and loss of others. Tell that to his architect or the people he falsely accused of being informants, only to kill them and take over their profitable rackets.
Like anyone who has ever taken a literature studies course knows, adding foils to the main character enhances the dramatic tone of a novel. In the case of this book, Anthony Casso’s foils were Salvatore Gravano and Vic Amuso. The current Lucchese Boss is used as Casso’s personal punching bag, and he dunked on Vic anytime he could. He called him stupid, lazy, incompetent, a coward. Casso made Vic’s entire career and allowed him to be Boss, only for the latter to muck things up. If anything, Casso was the brains of the operation and Vic merely served as his Front Boss. At least that is what this book would have you believe. Now Sammy is clearly a sore point for Casso. At certain points, it felt like a pissing contest with Casso always trying to outdo Gravano. He was the greater gangster, more powerful, richer, better looking. Casso was a noble wiseguy who kept his word, while the Bull turned out to be a low-life scumbag who sold kids molly. Gravano was a steroid junkie who played baseball for both teams, while Casso tried his best to maintain the honor of La Cosa Nostra. Life is full of injustice when the better person was screwed and Gravano got off scot-free. Only in Casso’s fantasy land…
Despite it being his most profitable racket, the book delved very little into the Mafia’s infamous Gas Tax Scheme. I know, I know. I can already hear you say it. You are bored to death by it due to Michael Franzese’s endless tirade about how they defrauded the government out of tax on every gallon of gasoline sold. But that’s exactly my issue with it. This was the perfect opportunity to hear another mobster’s take on the operation, the different ways they deceived the government and how they all interacted together. Frankie Lastorino was the Lucchese’s representative on the panel overseeing the bootlegging, but Anthony Casso surely had to know some interesting and juicy details. Worst off is that Casso doesn’t give a clear timeline on how and when things transpired. Why was Vic Orena Jr. representing the Colombo Family? But the most disappointing thing to me is that Michael Franzese was not mentioned directly and is referred to as “The Long Island Faction of the Colombo Crime Family”. I wish Casso gave us a measure of Michael. How was he thought of by his contemporaries? Alas, we will never know. Overall, we get a glimpse of La Cosa Nostra’s interactions with other organized crime groups and a little bit more detail about the Gas Tax Scheme, but not enough to satisfy my itch.
On that depressing note, next time we will be seeing what would have happened if Joe Pistone were actually made by taking a look at the story of the walking meatball, Ron Previte from Philadelphia.
Fun Fact: Anthony Casso received a plea deal to do 22 years, despite all the evidence against him. He would’ve spent the last decade of his life free with full honours from his peers.