“‘C’mon, people, we’re not selling truth!'” — Michael Lewis, quoting a typical PA announcement on the Salomon Brothers sales floor.
A young guy came into the Book Corner yesterday afternoon. He’s a regular. Comes in once every week or two and buys a couple of Penguin Classics (which, BTW, are among the coolest books — they’re inexpensive and the titles are, well, classic, like “The Three Musketeers” or “Humboldt’s Gift”).
Anyway, we told each other how fabulous the weather has been the last couple of weeks. He splashed cold water on the small talk, though, by saying his father, a farmer, is worried.
The old man, the guy reported, raises corn and soybeans on his spread about forty minutes west of Bloomington. Pops’ crops need a good soaking rain, and quick.
I’ve heard talk the area’s water table is down some 1o inches.
“Things are alright right now,” the guy said, “but if we go any longer without rain, my dad’s going to be in trouble.”
ON THE TOWN
HENRY HILL IS DEAD
One of the most despicable characters ever portrayed in film was a real person. An associate of New York’s Lucchese crime gang, Henry Hill turned rat back in 1980, saving his own hide by cooperating with the Feds who slammed his old pals into the joint.
Hill then told his story to Nick Pileggi and the ensuing book, “Wiseguy” was made into the iconic mobster movie, “Goodfellas.”
Ray Liotta played Hill in Martin Scorsese’s pic. The movie opens with the character Tommy DeVito repeatedly plunging a big kitchen chopping knife into the torso of a mobster named Billy Batts. Tommy is one of Hill’s two closest companions. Batts is in the trunk of Hill’s car.
Hill holds the trunk lid open as DeVito skewers Batts. The camera zooms in on Hill’s face to a freeze-frame. We hear Hill’s off-screen voice saying, “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Tony Bennett’s “I Go From Rags to Riches” begins to blare on the soundtrack and we’re off.
Ray Liotta As Henry Hill
Scorsese plays most of Hill’s story for laughs. “Goodfellas” could have been one of the darkest movies he ever made. Shoot, “Taxi Driver” might have been a giggle-fest compared to “Goodfellas” had Scorsese elected to portray Hill’s and DeVito’s and their partner Jimmie “The Gent” Conway’s workaday world straight.
I’m no shrink but I’ll guarantee you Hill et al were classic sociopaths.
Funny thing is, what should have been an abhorrent tale of evil turned out be something more akin to a recruitment ad for the Mafia.
Not that people who watched the flick actually tripped all over themselves in a rush to become connected killers and thieves but “Goodfellas” popularized the speech patterns, the music, and the outward trappings of the lifestyle of New York’s Italian-American reprobates.
Henry Hill and his smartly dressed pals became more cool guys to be aped than terrifying monsters to be loathed.
Even Tony Bennett has to attribute a pinch of his resurgent success on “Good fellas” and similar glamorizations of Mob life.
Mob movies of the last 40 years offer stories that satisfy some of our simplest needs in a changing world. The New York Mob lived in a self-contained universe where justice was swift, morality — such as it was — was clearly defined, and hard work and brotherhood brought rich rewards.
If most guys in real life weren’t willing to plunge chopping knives into each others’ torsi, many at least wanted to sound and look like Henry Hill and his crew.
I don’t know if Scorses intended that result. I also don’t know if he’s ever regretted creating roll models for lunkheads.
“Goodfellas” in that sense reminds me of Michael Lewis’s book, “Liar’s Poker.” Lewis describes the amoral world of the Salomon Brothers investment bank in the mid-1980’s. Saint Ronald Reagan’s deregulations and the lust for obscene amounts of cash created a gang of bond traders and salesmen who thought nothing of screwing customers, each other, and, for that matter, the nation’s economy simply to scale the company’s success ladder as measured by each participant’s year-end bonuses.
Bonuses which, by the way, far too often totaled into the hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars.
Lewis had hoped to expose this bankrupt world and thereby convince young people, who were beginning to enroll in business schools at unprecedented rates, to move into other, more worthy disciplines.
Instead, kids got off on the picture of greed and evil Lewis painted. Thousands of college students wrote to Lewis to ask him advice on how to get into the racket. He was shocked by their reaction.
Next thing you knew, avarice and narcissism had completely engulfed this holy land and, by extension, the rest of the world. The orgy went on up until the big crash on 2008. It still goes on in certain quarters today (I’m thinking Jamie Dimon and his confreres).
Talk about unintended consequences.
LET IT RAIN
For the farmers.