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Book Review: Honor Thy Father by Gay Talese

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Honor Thy Father, the 1971 story documenting the lives of the Bonanno family during the underworld conflict know as the Banana War and its aftermath, goes beyond the sensational and tells a story of a young man living a difficult existence trapped between worlds of an ancient culture of his father and its ideals and the mainstream American values, never fully at home in either. Gay Talese succeeds in making this existence understandable. And he infuses it with uncommon humanity for the subject.

Talese became interested in the story of Bill Bonanno when he was sent by the   New York Times to cover the young man's 1965 arrest. As Talese watched the young Bonanno in the courtoom, he wondered what the life of a young man growing up in the Mafia was like. It was the desire to satisfy this question that would lead him to approach the younger Bonanno, with the proposal of writing a book about him and his world, and eventually to enter the secret world of the Bonanno family.

While most men his age worried about things like paying the mortgage and getting ahead, Bill was worried about men with guns. And about the police. All this on top of the more mundane concerns about money and family. The life of Bill Bonanno as son of a Mafia don carried with it numerous burdens unknown and incomprehensible to most other young men of his era.

One of these burdens is the ever present threat of violence from members of the other crime families. To underscore this menace, the Honor Thy Father opens with a mysterious kidnapping of Joseph Bonanno by unidentified gunmen several days before his scheduled appearance in front of a federal grand jury in Manhattan. In the ensuing struggle for power between rival factions, Bill himself becomes a target of assassins sent by a bitter former friend of his father. Bill's world was one where the law and the courts were suspect or even the enemy and you settled disputes on your own. It was a medieval existence in the middle of 20th century America: in the era of the Moon missions, armed men in New York were carrying out secret vendettas.

Closely allied with violence was suspicion. It followed the abduction of the elder Bonanno as Bill tried to figure out who could have been responsible and whether someone inside the 300 hundred-man Bonanno organization could have betrayed them. One man who stood out among the suspects was Joseph Bonanno's long-time associate Di Gregorio, a man whose desire to assume the position of third in command of the organization was dashed when Joseph Bonanno elevated his son to the post. There was also jealousy and fears of ambition. Di Gregorio's jealousy seemed to consume him so completely he turned against his old friend. Some in the underworld also feared that the elder Bonanno planed to expand his influence, perhaps becoming the boss of bosses, at their cost, and saw Bill's promotion as part of that plan. Both the jealousy and the fears and suspicions played into an underworld war that would ultimately bring down the Bonannos. But there was boredom, too; there was waiting: Bill and his closest associates spent weeks holed up in an apartment, fearing to venture out following the abduction of his father.

Life in Bill's world, much like that of a spy or some other interloper, necessitated precautionary machinations — in one instance, Bill checked the hood of his car for fingerprints in an attempt to detect possible tampering and bomb planting — safe houses and secret signals to tell friend from foe. Rooms were bugged and phone lines tapped: Mafiosi must memorize lists of public phone numbers, booth locations and their numbers in order to maintain communication with one another. It all reinforced the perception of being an outsider and gave credence to belief systems that thrive on such insularity.

Though the Bonannos are law-breakers by ordinary standards, they did not see themselves as such, believing instead that it was the society and its laws that were more corrupt. Such ideas, while bizarre to most readers of the Honor Thy Father, are traced by Talese to their historical origins in Sicily, where some saw the law and those in power as utterly corrupt and regarded the outlaws as heroes. This theme of the noble criminal weaves itself throughout the book; in jail Bill reflects that the white collar criminals, and the system that produced them, are just as, if not more, corrupt than he or anyone in his organization; it appears in the guise of the idea, following a string of bombings in Arizona, that some mysterious federal agency is responsible. It is a psychological mechanism that legitimizes their anti-social existence but it reinforces their alienation, being the greatest barrier to integrating with the mainstream American life. And this is the tragedy of Bill Bonanno – though he lived in the 20th century, he subsisted in another era, being a prisoner to an ancient code of conduct. There is enormous irony in this, too, for Bill lived in a time when rebellion against old norms was the central cultural current in the lives of many of his generation.

Beside the threat of a confrontation with a rival gang, there is the danger of a confrontation with FBI agents serving subpoenas. And the FBI's attention has increased with the sensational press coverage of the Mafia in America. In the time following the Appalachian meeting and the testimony of Joseph Valachi, the Mafia came under the withering glare of the public limelight and the attendant interest of the politicians, prosecutors, and the FBI. Mafiosi were forced into hiding, trying to avoid being served with the dreaded subpoena, which forced them to either testify or spend time in jail for contempt, something that indeed happened to Bill in the wake of his father's mysterious kidnapping. The public interest and the FBI investigations had a ruinous effect on the Bonannos standing in long-time safe haven of Tucson. In the wake of the press attention the Bonnannos had to leave town. The constant pressure had a straining effect on his marriage; his wife left him on two occasions.

One of the questions that arises out of this story is why Bill just doesn't simply walk away. But this question has no easy answer. There were cultural barriers that kept him in place – Bill Bonanno was part Sicilian, a product of a culture that valued family bond and loyalty unlike that of mainstream America of the 1960s. There were psychological barriers, too; Bill loved his father, making the idea of abandoning him hard to carry out. He also saw society and law as corrupt, and perhaps regarded the entire culture as corrupt as well. Then there was the problem of where to go, if he was somehow able to overcome all his mental barriers: without his family, Bill Bonanno would have been just another young man in a crowd. Though he had attended university, he failed to receive a degree and felt that he had somehow failed at the project of becoming fully integrated in the mainstream. If he did leave his family, he would be lost, living still as an outsider. Though it is easy to point out his flaws and to second guess his choices, to condemn Bill is to fail to comprehend the mystery of human existence and to overstate the power of the individual to make free choices in the face of culture, tradition and perception.

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A. Jurek is one of the editors at Blogcritics. Contact me at: a.jurek@blogcritics.org