Blood and Honor: Listening to the Crow
"Bruno was the consummate racketeer. Scarfo, on the other hand, was a gangster."
It's about the self-destruction the Philly mob, so: pick your felony. But implied also is a metaphorical crime, an affront to the old-time Mafia code that kept the bullets in the drawer, and mouths and wallets closed. Angelo Bruno, head of Philadelphia's Mob presence, kept it tight; he was a businessman. His "successor" — if we can use that term for the man who sped up his own succession by murdering the boss — was notorious short fuse Nicodemo Scarfo. Scarfo, now in his eighties, remains in the federal pen at this writing, and wound up there because everyone he hadn't already had killed knew the paranoid little psycho would get around to it eventually if they didn't turn state's witnesses.
George Anastasia's chronicle of the Philly mob's '80s implosion is seeming proof that a physical crime-book template does in fact exist. It's a black paperback, lettered in white and reflective red; its title 1) contains two of the several dozen standard-issue true-crime-title nouns and adjectives (here, Blood and Honor; see also "mortal," "fate," "mystery," "cruel," e.g.) while 2) telling prospective readers next to nothing about the particular or criminals under discussion. That information is customarily the purview of the subtitle, and Anastasia's is accurate, to a point — "Inside the Scarfo Mob — the Mafia's Most Violent Family" — but it fails to describe the unique retro texture of the narrative. "One Man's Napoleon Complex Devolved Into Paranoid Psychosis and Destroyed an Underworld Institution: An Oral History by Protected Witness Nick 'The Crow' Caramandi" comes closer.
What the book gets called isn't up to Anastasia, but how it's structured is, and it's smart to let the Crow do a lot of the talking, more or less uncut. I love the oral-history format, vintage-Interview-magazine transcripts that leave in every "uh" and "you know"; nothing against glossy standardized usage, of course, but part of the point of getting a quote is to get a sense of the person giving it, and if it's too shined up, the reader's mind can just slide right over it and not catch on anything. Anastasia no doubt sanded off a few edges, but he lets you hear Caramandi:
So I'm waitin' for the guy. All of a sudden I see a guy turn the corner and this guy's got a jacket on. Hey, it's a hot summer day. It musta been a hundred degrees that day. No way, I thought. So I said, 'Shorty, there's something wrong. Get that bag and put it under that car.' I walk to the corner and I see a bunch of guys coming up one way. I look down the street and I see like the whole area is surrounded. They're zeroing in on me. All of a sudden, here comes a fuckin' helicopter. They got a fuckin' helicopter. (79-80)
It can get confusing when Caramandi takes a sidebar about some jabroni who's over at his sister's, his sister who dated one of the seventeen Johnnies in the book, but the dark fact is, you needn't bother keeping the players straight…because within a few pages of when you've finally figured out who's on which crew or is that guy with Salvie Testa or getting stalked by him or what, whoever it is gets killed or goes into witness protection. Everyone's always switching sides, killing each other so Scarfo doesn't decide to have them killed, on and on. Everyone's named Phil. On occasion, the timing of a hit, or Caramandi's comments on it, recall an episode or demise on The Sopranos.
Other times, it puts me in mind of my grandmother — not because she ran with the Scarfo crew, and even typing that gives me a giggle. Louise didn't go over to a friend's house for sherbet of a summer afternoon without white gloves on. But she did allegedly have a relative who allegedly did a few sub-Donnie-Brasco-level errands for alleged Scarfo associates to pay his alleged gambling debts; more to the point, she grew up in South Philly, and when Caramandi is talking, I can hear her accent. A Philadelphia accent is difficult to reproduce — "hurry" is "herry," "merry" is "murry," "way" is "wey" and no it's not quite the same diff. Anastasia has a few locutions of his own that capture the way that part of the country speaks, or used to, himself — "$80 slacks" on page 277. "It was time, at the end of each month, to send the 'elbow' money down the shore" on page 302.
Grandma is surely clawing her way aboveground as we speak to chastise me for associating her with That Thing Of Not Hers, so I'd better wrap it up here. Blood and Honor isn't just for folks whose ancestors met on the Sea Isle City boardwalk, or fans of The Sopranos, though those people might get more out of it. It's a briskly paced snapshot of a turning point for the Cosa Nostra, in Philly and elsewhere, in the late '70s and early '80s, and nestled in it is a nifty oral history of honor among thieves. Anastasia is a respected reporter on the Mob beat who turns up regularly as an expert on shows like Mobsters, and he uses the word "flimflam" about a dozen times, which isn't something you can say about too many books. The pictures seem a bit sparse — if you show $80 slacks in the first act, they'd better etc. — but of course these guys make a business practice of invisibility.
Tags: accentry Angelo Bruno books George Anastasia Grandma Mobsters Nick Caramandi Nicky Scarfo Salvatore Testa The Blotter the Mafia The Sopranos