E-book World: Russell Shorto’s ‘Small-Time’ appears to be like at household mob connections | life-style
All families are complicated in their own way. Throwing the mob into the mix makes them difficult in their own way.
Best-selling author and historian Russell Shorto knew his grandfather was linked to the mid-20th century mafia in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. It wasn’t a mystery. Russ Shorto, after whom his grandson is named, had a long rap sheet and for years controlled a lucrative illegal gambling company with his partner and brother-in-law “Little Joe” Regino. Johnstown was a thriving manufacturing town at the time, and Shorto and Regino kept numbers, sports books, pool halls, poker rooms, pinball games, and just about any activity that satisfied the betting desires of thousands of factory workers leaving their shifts.
But otherwise the writer Shorto didn’t know much about his grandfather. He rarely saw or spoke to him when he was young, and his grandfather died while he was in college. He knew his father and grandfather didn’t get along, but why they didn’t was unclear. The story he remembers is that his grandfather wanted his father to be a partner in crime, but his father refused and their relationship withered.
However, family stories are fun things that can change and change over the years until the unknowns are more than the known. With “Smalltime”, Shorto traces his decision to learn the truth about his family’s past, to discover their long-buried secrets and to explore unforgettable little things and how decisions made decades and decades ago continue to leave their mark.
But Shorto’s story isn’t just about his family. It’s also a social story of a place and time – industrial Pennsylvania from the early 20th century – as it is marked by an influx of immigrants resentful arriving, forced into the worst jobs and homes, and around the world Fight for survival of an official America that makes the path difficult for them at every opportunity.
“No one with an Italian background has ever had a political job in the county,” Shorto writes in a chapter on the roadblocks put up by the establishment forces to keep immigrants from gaining power. “As early as 1911, the Mayor of Johnstown made an election promise that no one of Italian origin would work in his administration, not even as a street cleaner.”
Mob growth in cities like Johnstown, Shorto said, was largely due to denial of access to legal avenues to power and prosperity. If the front door wasn’t open, the back door should do. For his grandfather, who was born the son of Italian immigrants in 1914, the back door meant helping his widowed mother make and sell moonshine during Prohibition, learn how to cheat and win cards and dice, and ultimately help an illegal small town business with ties to running the big city mobs in New York, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia.
While Shorto can successfully find out what his grandfather did – as well as the affairs he had, the people he cheated on, the alcohol problem that fueled his illegal career – he strives to learn more about who his be Grandfather was. He admits that he is “constantly thwarted” in his efforts to learn more about his namesake’s personality.
There are long conversations with relatives, with men who have known his grandfather since he was gangster, with retired police officers and others, but no one can get a piercing look at the man who was once in command of a criminal operation that controlled an entire city . Who Really Was Russ Shorto? It’s difficult to say.
Sometimes the flatness of his grandfather’s character dampens the narrative. Why, a reader may rightly ask, am I interested in this person? Unfortunately, the answer is never quite obvious. The story of a gangster in a bygone era promises to be exciting, but there isn’t enough to turn it into a book that you can’t put down. The ghost of an unsolved mob murder hangs over the story, hinting at a much deeper, darker story. That, too, turns out to be a promise that is not quite fulfilled.
What pays off is a series of revelations that unfold in the final third of the book, in which Shorto focuses less on his grandfather than on his father and his own strained relationship and everything that led to it. Here the memory becomes more personal and poignant rather than a historical account burdened by side effects of the process and efforts to validate stories.
When the injuries are exposed, they offer unexpected insights that cross generations. The life of the grandfather explains the life of the father what explains the life of the son. Shorto is on his father’s deathbed, expressing newfound gratitude and understanding.
“Thank you,” he says to his father, “for showing me how to make history, which suddenly occurs to me when it’s not about how people try to make up for their inevitable mistakes and stay afloat in the midst of currents, designed to sink them. “
Joe Heim joined the Washington Post in 1999. He is an employee of the Metro section. He also writes Just Asking, a weekly Q&A column in Washington Post Magazine.
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