Hope you were able to join us at Books in Bloom this weekend! I had a great time–got to hear some wonderful talks from talented authors and even acquired a few signed books. I’m already looking forward to next year!
On that note, last week, when we were chatting about authors we’d like to see at Books in Bloom in the future, I promised to unveil two of my picks over the next couple of weeks.
One author I would love to meet and listen to is Nicholas Pileggi. He was a crime reporter in New York City for 30 years, with a special focus on the Mafia. But most people, myself included, are most familiar with him through his books about the Mafia, Wiseguys and Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas. He adapted both of them into Martin Scorsese movies in the 1990s, Goodfellas and Casino, respectively.
I’ve been a Scorsese fan since I was a teenager, and though my personal favorites of his movies is probably a tie between Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, I really do enjoy both Goodfellas and Casino.
And because I’ve also found organized crime interesting since I was a child–it’s a little embarrassing how many books I own about the mob–when I found out those movies were based on nonfiction books, I read Pileggi’s books and quickly became a fan of his work in its own right.
Honestly, I’d like to meet and talk to Pileggi just because I’d like to his pick his brain and hear inside stories from his days as a reporter, his research for his books, and his experiences in Hollywood. I’d love to hear his thoughts on what it is like to be both the writer of the original source and the adaptation.
And to that end, I thought we might as well compare his book and his movie about the mob’s fall from power in Las Vegas.
Thoughts on the book:
In his book Casino, Pileggi details the personalities and events that led to Chicago’s organized crime family, the Outfit, losing their lucrative stranglehold on gambling in Las Vegas during the 1970s and 1980s.
Of course, nobody involved thought that was what would happen when they sent Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, a brilliant but difficult gambler, and Tony Spilotro, an unhinged and violent enforcer, to run things in town at the height of the mob’s power there. But betrayals, unrelenting media attention, and the excesses of Vegas caused things to spiral out of control quickly. There’s something almost Shakespearean in how self-inflicted this misery and loss is, and it makes for compelling reading, even though virtually none of the people profiled are likable.
One thing I have been thinking a lot about recently is the idea of voice in nonfiction, especially biographies. I was reading some criticism of a well-regarded biography I started and didn’t finish earlier this year, in which the reviewer noted that the book was competently written but had no trace of its subject’s distinctive voice. That the writer had, in writing about this person, de-personalized the subject of the biography by providing so little of the subject’s own words. I thought that was an interesting point because it was something I never really thought of but made sense.
Pileggi manages to avoid this largely because he just lets his interview subjects talk. Everything from casino employees to mobsters to law enforcement (as long as they made it out of Vegas alive) get to talk about their experiences at length, and the text certainly preserves their original voices.
Doing so also ends up making the story more complex and well-rounded because of the juxtaposition of these quotes. Side-by-side are conflicting stories about the state of Rosenthal’s marriage–the dissolution of which played an important role in fueling the craziness. There are also numerous, conflicting opinions, depending on who is talking, on everything from who was really in charge in the casinos, the extent of the corruption, and how successful the mob actually was. Pileggi leaves interpreting these issues up to the reader, but he certainly does not leave you at a loss for material to base your conclusions on.
The only downside to this is, as intriguing as the book is, it sometimes feels unfinished. Like you are reading his research notes in some places rather than a full book. And that’s because in a way you are just reading his research notes. Pileggi was scrambling to write the book as he and Scorsese were working on the movie, so things got crazy with deadlines, to put it mildly.
For that reason, I do think Pileggi’s Wiseguys, which was the source for Goodfellas, feels more polished. But it also has a much less expansive subject matter. Its primary focus is one man and his rise and fall among his circle of friends in an organized crime family, so it really wouldn’t work without a sense of it being polished.
Weirdly enough, that doesn’t hurt Casino. Perhaps because it deals with a much wider cast of characters and several locations, the book has the luxury of not having to focus on just one person, so it can easily get away with being so expansive. It also benefits from being written only about ten or twenty years after the story occurred, so there are ample eyewitnesses left. Pileggi didn’t have to go digging around in archives to find his story and his research, and he’s smart enough to know when he should just turn his interview subjects loose and let them tell their own story.
Follow the link below to the next page to read my thoughts about the movie.