Re: "Tony's World"

#2
The article/review can be located in the
4-30-2006 Sunday NY Times Book Review.

Just in case you can't find it:

'An Offer We Can't Refuse,' by George De Stefano
Tony's World

Review by MARILYN STASIO
Published: April 30, 2006

FORGET about the brotherhood of man — it's the brotherhood of mobsters that unites us nowadays. More precisely, as George De Stefano contends in "An Offer We Can't Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America," it's our common devotion to the Corleones and the Sopranos and all those other swaggering Mafiosi who have captured our imagination in works of popular culture by writers and directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Mario Puzo, Martin Scorsese and David Chase (né De Cesare).

AN OFFER WE CAN'T REFUSE
The Mafia in the Mind of America.
By George De Stefano.

Illustrated. 438 pp. Faber & Faber. $26.

"This is the homage the rest of America pays to Italian-American magnificence: You've made us mythic," Bill Tonelli, editor of "The Italian American Reader," wrote in The New York Times in 2001. But while that ethnic worship is flattering, it's also a little creepy — like having a stalker. As a third-generation Italian-American, De Stefano acknowledges his own ambivalent feelings about the glorification of the Italian-American Mafioso and gives himself the task of examining the appeal of this potent archetypal myth, while explaining how it fosters "a skewed image of one ethnic group's complex historical experience" and is based on false and slanted data, anyhow.

Gangster movies have been around since Prohibition, acquiring Italian features early on with "Little Caesar" (1931) and "Scarface" (1932). Although Depression audiences got a vicarious sense of power from identifying with antiheroes who defied established authority, the ethnic profile of these criminals forged a strong link in the minds of American moviegoers between organized crime and the immigrants who fled here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to escape the feudal conditions in southern Italy. First- and second-generation Italian-Americans, already contending with the stereotyping of anyone from the Mezzogiorno as inherently criminal, spent the next 40 years looking for a table to crawl under. For the children of these immigrants, according to the educator and author Leonard Covello, assimilation began with "learning to be ashamed of our parents."

Two generations later, De Stefano notes, the Italian-American mobster has undergone so great a transformation in the popular culture — a process that took hold with the first "Godfather" film in 1972 and went over the moon with "The Sopranos" in 1999 — that today, "substantial numbers of Italian-Americans seem to fantasize about being members" of the Soprano crime clan. No less smitten, non-paesani "want to be Italian-Americans, or what they believe Italian-Americans to be like, based on the images fed them by the entertainment industry."

What troubles De Stefano and other cultural critics whose views he surveys here is that these images of Italian-Americans as Mafia godfathers, wiseguys, goodfellas and goombahs acquire their glamour by reinforcing pernicious clichés about Italian-Americans as mobbed-up guys. Adding irony to indignity, De Stefano (who has written for The Nation and Film Comment) points out that "it is often Italian-Americans themselves who write, direct and act in these films and TV shows, which makes Italian-American stereotyping different from that of other groups."

That irony can be lost on the artists themselves. "My Mafia is a very romanticized myth," Mario Puzo unequivocally stated about the criminal empire he created in 1969 with "The Godfather," the novel that made a pantheon of gods of the Corleone crime family and cast their violent power struggles as a tragic metaphor for the passing of the stern, but benevolent, patriarchy on which the old Sicilian social order was based. "This is a classic story, this is like Shakespeare," Francis Ford Coppola said when he expanded on that theme for his film trilogy. "I'm going to do it like the story of a king. . . . I'm going to tell it sort of like a story of succession, and it'll be very classical."

In his smart analysis of "The Sopranos," De Stefano credits David Chase, its creator and executive producer, for extending that "classical" generational story to reflect il declino del padrino — a coinage that Vittorio Zucconi, a columnist for the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, applied to the diminishment of the old Mafia families and the breakdown of their paternalistic structure. Rejecting the rants of antidefamation groups that would happily slit the vocal cords of "The Sopranos," De Stefano admires the show for taking the decline of the Mafia as a core theme and making Tony Soprano the tragicomic embodiment of the Godfather in existential extremis. ("Things are trending downward" is how Tony, a man who measures his words with care, expresses his angst to his psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi, in their first therapy session.)

De Stefano knows the gangster genre inside out, making it a pleasure to follow his thoughts on favorites like "The Sopranos," "Donnie Brasco," "Goodfellas" and the "Godfather" trilogy, as well as lesser-known films like "A Bronx Tale." But even as he succeeds in illustrating how a good gangster dr
ama can illuminate "not only organized crime but also class, culture, psychology and national identity," he fails to sever the link between fictional mobsters and their real-life role models. His contention that "these days 'the Mafia' thrives only in its representations, in the mythologies of law enforcement and popular culture," might help the author to resolve his ambivalence about loving a genre that makes his own people look bad. But it's a hard sell when the deaths of notorious mob bosses like John Gotti and Vincent (the Chin) Gigante prompt lengthy obituaries detailing the current activities of an institution that still lives — even if it is reduced to shuffling around in ratty bathrobe and slippers, scanning the skies for wild ducks that never land.

Marilyn Stasio writes the Crime column for the Book Review.

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