Book Review: Goodfellas aka Wiseguy by Nicholas PileggiPosted: July 31, 2013
This is the book which inspired one of the all time greatest crime movies, Michael Scorsese’s 1990 Goodfellas. The movie is a slick, tough movie about the life of a low level hood who winds up having to go into the witness protection program after having to testify against his old friends who wanted him dead.
The book tells the same story, of Henry Hill, a young guy who was lured into the life of organized crime because of the perks and glamour. In an area where people like his dad struggled to get by the “wiseguys” always had money, and this lured him in. Much of the book comes straight from the source, with Hill having been interviewed extensively by Nicholas Pileggi, who fills in the blanks. As a former crime reporter, Pileggi knows his stuff about the mob and fills in the background of some of the key players and law enforcement’s work in trying to bring them in.
In his introduction, Pileggi says that what drew him to tell Hill’s story was that Henry was different to the “egomaniacal ravings of illiterate hoods masquerading as benevolent Godfathers” that Pileggi had tired of. Hill was something of an outsider in the mob, being half Irish and never rose to the dizzy heights of organized crime, rather he was a hustler and conman, always looking for ways to make some cash and take advantage of a situation.
Through his stories Henry paints a vivid, compelling vision of the reality of organized crime. He seems to have worked extremely hard to make his cash, scheming constantly and sticking his fingers in several different pies (drugs, gambling, smuggling, hijacking etc.). Hill may have stopped going to school early, but he’s clearly street smart- constantly figuring out angles and scores to his advantage, and some of the cons the mob ran are downright ingenious.
And then there’s the perks, Henry never holds back on discussing how much fun he had- the flash clothes, new cars, boozy nights out and the swaggering confidence does seem tempting and it makes sense why Hill would pursue it. He talks of how to him and his associates the working man was seen as a sucker and regarded with contempt, people who followed the rules and worked hard, playing it safe,
But Henry doesn’t sugar coat his fellow criminals, there’s no code of honour that binds them together, when Hill is imprisoned the mob doesn’t help his family, and he seems to accept this, seeming to follow the logic that if he wasn’t earning them money why should they help him. His wife, Karen, who’s interviewed didn’t take it quite as easily, and seems aggrieved by the way people abandoned the family or didn’t pay back their debts.
Hill is honest about his associates, he knows that some are borderline psychopaths and that as soon as someone was no good to them they were expendable. After a large score and with several key players getting a bit twitchy, the bodies quickly pile up. Underneath all the joking around and facade of friendship there’s a constant undercurrent of violence and menace. It doesn’t take much for tempers flare and violence to erupt.
This is what leads him to turn on his former friends, he knows that he’s going to get whacked, and worse that it’s coming from someone he regards as a friend and mentor. But even at the end, settled in his new life and having to flee people he grew up with, Hill still admits to missing the life, and that as a regular Joe he feels something is missing. He may never have been super rich or immensely powerful, but Hill lived large and his sadness at living the quiet life is rather.
The book is a fascinating insight into the workings of organized crime and the day-to-day life of a hood.
Verdict: A gripping and well written insight into the world of crime. Hill is a good guide to the murky underworld, and Pileggi brings it all together in a book which is just as entertaining and engrossing as it’s more famous big screen version. 7/10.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.