The Life of Little Al D’Arco, the Man Who Brought Down the Mafia
Jerry Capeci has written about the American mob for a long time; Tom Robbins is an experienced crime journalist. Both of them sat in on D’Arco’s court testimony, and later took hundreds of hours of interviews down on tape. Neither of them was willing to negotiate with an individual of D’Arco’s moral fiber; they told him that if they wrote his story, he would not be able to declare any topic off-limits, and he would not get to proofread the book before it went to press. He agreed. Both writers note that unlike other mafia figures that have turned out of self-interest, this one actually told the truth about whatever he was asked, even volunteering information about crimes no one knew had been committed. And if a prosecutor was fishing for information about something he genuinely was clueless about, he would flatly state that he knew what they wanted, but he couldn’t help them.
So whereas there really is no honor among thieves, one thing D’Arco understands clearly is how to work by a set of rules. When his allegiance to the American mafia ended, he treated his job helping the FBI nail mob figures as if it were a job. His lack of ambiguity and complete frankness is apparently a rarity in that realm, and perhaps it is partly this that makes this is a compelling story by the masters of the genre.
Why do we read these things? Why are we fascinated by this unwholesome world that we would never want to have as part of our own lives? I was lucky, and received my copy as a Goodreads.com First Read, but I would have read it anyway, sooner or later. There is a peculiar draw, similar to the way one cannot look away readily when a snake unhinges its jaw in order to swallow an egg, or even a live mammal. The horror and ferocity is haunting.
But there’s something more, at least for me. Books like this one share a characteristic in common with other tales that excite prurient interest mixed with fear and/or distaste. When someone leaves a polygamous sect and rushes out to tell their story, the public eats it up. I know I do. And when a member of the Amish decides it’s time to go out and get a cell phone and an apartment with central heating, we can’t wait for them to spill the story.
What is it like to live in as vast a place as the USA, and yet operate under a strict, separate and Byzantine set of rules that is very, very different from the way other people, perhaps next door or across the street from you, live theirs? How does a subgroup of society exact the loyalty and obedience of people who can choose to walk away?
Of course, in a sense, we’ll never know. The people who tell us what it’s like are the ones who left. Nobody that is still inside organized crime, or inside a polygamous sect with full plans of remaining, or still living the Plain life into which they were born is going to talk to a journalist, and if they did, there would be such strict limits on what they were willing to give up that writers of Capeci’s and Robbins’ caliber would not stand still for it. Why waste their time?
After reading this story and a couple of others, I think that this particular subgroup filled a particular need for a finite time. They sure weren’t Robin Hoods; in fact, they stole from the poor—skimming government money that was designated for windows in public housing projects, even robbing the projects themselves, and setting up gambling scenarios that fed off the most vulnerable and desperate portions of the U.S. population.
But in New York City, cops would not even make a pretense of being interested in saving the lives or property of ordinary working people. The only law that Little Italy knew, at least for a generation or two, was that of the Mafia. D’Arco’s grandmother told him at night to be good and stay safe lest the Black Hand get them. And in fact, if some aspect of life within their own invisible yet distinct boundaries was becoming so unfair as to be unmanageable, a word from a resident not Mafia-affiliated with someone in a position of criminal power was often all it took to take care of that one specific problem. It was in the interest of organized crime to keep the level of chaos down to a dull roar lest pressure build for the cops paid by the taxpayer’s dollar to come in and clean house.
Because of this understanding, local political/criminal bosses initially made a point of not living large. They might have millions of dollars in cash parked somewhere (or more likely , distributed among many somewheres) but their own living standards would not rise above those around them. If everyone else had to walk up two flights of stairs and live in cramped quarters, they did it too. When others coming up the ladder of organized crime began to show their wealth with public arrogance, the whole thing began to fall apart.
D’Arco left when he knew he was marked for death, and his son was marked also. However, it was more than that: suddenly the rules had come undone. The structure into which he had so carefully been trained and inducted was no longer adhered to; treasured, absolutely sacrosanct rules were no longer being observed. And when the floor began to tilt and the ceiling was beneath his feet, D’Arco could no longer maneuver or find purchase.
Nobody lives without some sort of rules.
Capeci and Robbins have done a wonderful job of unwinding the spool at a pace that is absorbing, yet not hectic enough to keep the reader from being able to identify who each of a complex tree of characters is, and what their role in the story is. I can see why they were so insistent upon the protocol they used with this mobster; telling this story must have been a lot of work. But for the reader, it’s easy. Carefully documented, yet never slowing in pace, this well-told tale is worth your time and money. If you liked reading the fictional novel, The Godfather, this is your chance to read about the real thing.