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The Destruction of America's Last Mafia Dynasty
By Ernest Volkman
Faber and Faber
318 pages, $24.95

Peter Chiodo was a 547-pound hitman for New York's Lucchese crime family. He had botched a murder and his violence-crazed bosses ordered the hitman hit as the ultimate penalty for his mistake. His hired killers pumped seven bullets into him but, amazingly, the massive murderer did not die.

Lying in a hospital bed, an oxygen masked strapped to his face, tubes imbedded in his veins, Chiodo was paid a visit -- by a federal prosecutor who had long stalked the Lucchese mob. The prosecutor knew much about Chiodo. He knew he had been a trusted member of the crime family's inner circle. He knew he had killed many, many men at the behest of the family's leaders. And he knew Chiodo liked to eat, ravenous portions whenever possible.

So he brought with him to the hospital a warm pizza, so fresh the smell was wafting from the box when he entered the room. The mobster with the seven bullet holes was rude at first, evoking the Mafia's time-honored oath of silence, Omerta. But he never took his eyes off the pizza box. The prosecutor persisted, acknowledging the Mafia man man's loyalty to his oath. Where was his bosses' loyalty to him, the prosecutor asked? To settle a grudge with such a "made" Mafioso, were not his superiors obliged by tradition to conduct a "sit-down" to try to iron out the differences peacefully?

As he talked he opened the box and started munching on a piece of pizza. The immense man before him, faced with the logic of the prosecutor's reasoning and eyeing the pines, slowly started to waver. Soon he was eating the contraband food and agreeing to join the growing list of Lucchese insiders willing to testify against their cohorts.

It's such scenes as these that Ernest Volkman paints in "Gangbusters," a richly detailed accounting of the rise and fall of the Lucchese crime family that also embraces the heights and depths of all Mafiadom. Although he doesn't credit his sources, Volkman, a former Newsday correspondent, must have had a legion of them -- on both sides of the law.

How else could he describe with such intimacy the behind-the-scenes meetings that for more than 65 years plotted racketeering throughout the New York metropolitan area? How else could he recount the fastidiousness of a jailed Mafioso who meticulously arranged his cell and rushed to wipe a table clean of the dampness from a visitor's Styrofoam coffee cup? How else did he know that Cleveland FBI agents, angry over mob threats to kill them, broke into a Mafioso's mansion and urinated on his prize plants? How else could he relate the hideousness and viciousness of murders ordered and carried out by men with no concern for human life?

Volkman accomplishes all of the above, and much more in "Gangbusters." It's "The Godfather," "Goodfellas," "Wiseguys" and just about every other Mafia tome all wrapped up in one. It has a richness derived from wondrous details, a story line etched from modern-day, big-city America, and a message carved from the embers of a fallen criminal empire once known for strength, organization and power. And it's well written, too.

Volkman manages to put into book form what most Mafia watchers have recognized for a few years now -- the Mafia as it once was has all but expired. And, as Volkman notes, it impaled itself on greed, ignorance and wholesale deviations from the credos that made it so strong. Gaetano Lucchese was a brilliant strategist who knew enough, according to Volkman, to bet heavily on upstart Cassius Clay because his 1964 heavyweight title fight with Sonny Liston was fixed. So was his successor, Anthony "Tony Ducks" Corrallo, who cornered the market on garbage collections on Long Island. But the next generation of Mafia leaders killed for killing's sake, drained enterprises of profits for the quick buck with no regard for the long haul and succumbed to the temptation of lighter sentences in return for information and testimony. Plug in the federal government's eventually awakening from a stupefying slumber about the Mafia and Volkman outlines the formula that led to the empire's demise.

It is hoped his richly detailed facts, his direct quotation of long-dead mobsters and his intimate glimpses of the lives of the pursued and the pursuers contain no glint of editorial license. That's because in one instance, he apparently got it wrong. Describing a mobster's penchant for cooking, he writes:

"On Sundays, he liked to show off his considerable culinary skills to friends and family invited to dinner by preparing Italian meatballs so perfect, they actually (emphasis added) floated in the sauce." Mr. Volkman, all Italian meatballs, perfect or otherwise, float in sauce.