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Review: What the real 'Sopranos' are like

By L.D. Meagher


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'The Way of the Wiseguy'
  • By Donnie Brasco, aka Joseph D. Pistone
  • Running Press
  • Nonfiction
  • 224 pages
    Organized Crime
    'The Sopranos'

    (CNN) -- In an episode of "The Sopranos," two members of Tony's inner circle, Christopher Moltisanti and Peter Paul "Paulie Walnuts" Gualtieri, get into a major beef over which one of them should pick up the check for an expensive dinner. The disagreement leads to a major and violent confrontation.

    It may make for good television, but the incident does not make Chris and Paulie Walnuts wiseguys. If anything, it proves they are not real mobsters. Just ask Donnie Brasco.

    He'll tell you, "Wiseguys never pick up the check." And he should know. He used to be one.

    Brasco (the cover name for veteran FBI agent Joe Pistone) spent years working his way into a Mafia family, and several more years helping prosecutors take that family apart. His first book, "Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia," revealed how he did it. Now, he is revealing what he learned.

    "The Way of the Wiseguy" dissects the mobster lifestyle and examines its many intricate parts. It explores the singular brand of morality that governs how made men act in a wide variety of domestic and business settings.

    Some of it is simply hilarious. The rest is simply chilling.

    'Wiseguys Are Not Nice Guys'

    The slim and breezy volume is packed to the brim with anecdotes drawn from the author's personal experiences. Each chapter explores a different aspect of the Mafioso gestalt: "Wiseguys Are Not Nice Guys," "Wiseguy Table Manners," "Wiseguy Nicknames," "A Few Things Wiseguys Won't Do," "How Wiseguys Carry Out a Hit," and one the "Sopranos" writers should particularly note, "Wiseguys Are Cheap."

    Brasco does not glamorize the mobsters he knew, but he does have a grudging appreciation for them. They are who they are and offer no apologies. It is a lesson he learned by having dinner with them, as recounted in the chapter "Wiseguys Don't Make Reservations."

    "The fact is," he writes, "most people don't have the stomach for confrontation that wiseguys have. Wiseguys are absolutely unafraid to confront people, even if they know they are dead wrong about something. For wiseguys, a wrong can be turned into a right simply by arguing your point loudly and forcibly. The value of getting in someone's face and knocking them off-balance cannot be overstated. Wiseguys know this -- wiseguys understand the currency of fear."

    "The Way of the Wiseguy" crackles with authenticity (right down to the enclosed CD of FBI surveillance tapes) and insight. Brasco came within weeks of becoming a made man himself, so he knows the territory.

    At the same time, he has no romantic illusions about mobsters. They are predators. The book, in the end, is a kind of survival guide. It enables you to recognize the species, understand its habits -- and stay out of its way.

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