Making and Breaking a Family in “Wiseguy”

By: Sarah Bowden.

Written as part of the First-Year Seminar “The Business of Organized Crime”

Wiseguy is a detailed portrayal of the mafia as seen through the eyes of Henry Hill, who was part of a mafia for over twenty years.  Between the everyday crimes and the routine killings, the mafia members had each other’s backs— at least for now— and they were driven by their own moral codes and desires to protect their friends… as long as they were friends.  According to Hill, the mafia worked like a family— albeit a strange, crooked, and violent one.

When Henry Hill starts working for mob boss Paul Vario at his cabstand, he quickly finds a home among Vario and his crew, who soon welcomed him into their group.  Hill recalls Vario saying about him, “He’s a cousin.  He’s blood.”  A young Hill has a more real family among the Varios than in his own home, where his parents struggle to make ends meet and he has an “always angry” and violent father to deal with.  Growing up in such an unstable environment, there’s little doubt as to why the mob appealed to Hill, who “belonged” at the cabstand.  When he started working for the mafia, Hill says, “I found my home.” And it isn’t long before Vario, meeting with the more seasoned members, tells Hill, “You can stay.”  And stay he does— for twenty-five years.

Hill may have found his family, but this family has rules.  Before he was an adult, Hill was being sent out to do the mob’s dirty work: first theft, then making runs for card and dice games, even blowing up cars from a rival cab group.  Hill also witnesses firsthand the so-called typical activities of a mob, from his own mailman being threatened on his behalf (“Tuddy’s going to shove him in the pizza oven feet first”) to men walking into a restaurant with a gunshot wound. What most would call horrifying is met by wiseguys with indifference; when the shot man stumbles into the restaurant where Hill works, the owner calls Hill “stupid” because he “wasted” eight aprons trying to staunch the blood flow.  He swiftly learns the main rule of the mafia: violence is an acceptable way to get what you want.  Rather than the right-and-wrong morality a traditional family teaches, Hill is taught a wrong-and-wrong mindset, desensitizing him to crime early on and hardening him for the mafia lifestyle.  Alongside that, the mafia requires obedience without question.  At few, if any, moments does Hill mention doubting the methods of the mafia or the orders of Vario or some other superior. In fact, when Hill’s actions are criticized in the shot-man incident, he wonders, “maybe [the owner] was right.” He did what he was told, because that’s how the family worked.

Even in the mafia, violence was sometimes used to protect the family (blood or mafia) and allies.  Hill explains that street crimes were extremely rare because “too many eyes were watching the street… nobody missed anybody.”  He relates one seemingly typical evening— until Vario’s men notice a stranger “who nobody had ever seen before” following a local, Theresa Bivona.  “All of a sudden the kid’s got eyes all over him.” Suddenly the stranger runs into Bivona’s house as she walks in.  Hill explains, “The guy was supposed to have pulled a knife and was supposed to have been pressing it against Theresa’s face, but I never saw anything.”  Hill only sees “at least three tons of wiseguys” swarming Bivona’s house on the heels of the intruder.  Hill runs back outside amid the carnage, “and then I saw the guy launched right over [the roof] into the air… and then he came down hard and splattered into the street.”  While returning violence with violence is not a smart idea, the mob was raised on violence as Hill was in his early days, so this action is nothing special. Unlike before, though, we see that the mafia used violence not just to off enemies but also to protect their own at any cost, a basic desire in almost any family.

On the other hand, violence was commonplace against friends as well.  In Hill’s words, “For most of the guys the killings were just accepted.  They were a part of every day… Murder was the only way everybody stayed in line.”  This truth is most strongly embodied in fellow mobster Jimmy, whom Hill evocatively describes: “Jimmy could look at you and smile and you’d think you were sitting with your best friend in the world. Meanwhile he’s got your grave dug.” This image is a much broader and disturbing portrait of the mafia when the reader remembers Jimmy is one of many similar-minded wiseguys and very few mobsters, if anybody, stopped him.  Hill exemplifies the culture of murder in Jimmy’s plot to kill his friend Remo after Remo sells him out.  Hill accompanies Jimmy and two other mobsters to the murder, and he keeps the description of the killing impersonal: “Tommy used a piano wire. Remo put up some fight.  He kicked and swung and shit all over himself before he died.”  The way Hill narrates such a brutal and sudden death underscores how routine violence was— and not just for Jimmy.  “It didn’t take anything for these guys to kill you,” he remarks.  Your family could become your enemy any moment.  And enemies had to get whacked.

After the twenty-five years Hill is with the mafia family, he slips up, and the family who loved him ultimately betrays him.  In fact, this is how we meet Henry Hill at the start of Wiseguy: a man who has no choice but to hide from his former family.  Near the end, we get a fuller picture: Hill is arrested for a narcotics operation, which Paul Vario is adamantly against.  As a result, Vario cuts all ties with Hill and his family.  He tells Hill’s wife he is “going to have to turn his back on Henry” and his wife recalls “he was crying.”  This is an interesting insight into the mafia family: amidst the violence that could tear the family apart at any moment, there was also an honor code of sorts that kept a fragile hold.  Vario, at least in his mind, turns Hill away not because he wants to but because he has to— although, theoretically, he never had to turn his back on Hill.

Meanwhile Hill, who is stuck in jail after the narcotics pinch and the Lufthansa heist, hears the people involved in the heist are being killed one by one, and the police have solid evidence suggesting Hill is “the next on the hit parade.”  With support from Vario, this would have been a much smaller problem, but now that Hill is on his own, no one in his now-ex-family is protecting him from his now-ex-friend, the same man who “could look at you and smile and you’d think you were sitting with your best friend” while planning a grave.  What makes it sadder is that Hill knows and understands the way it works: “Nobody ever tells you that they’re going to kill you… They come as friends, people who have cared deeply about you all your life…”  And up until the end of his rope, Hill is torn between fear and friendship toward his lifelong companion Jimmy.

In the end, the family Henry Hill found in the mafia became his most dangerous enemy.  The family taught him crime, obedience, violence, eye for an eye, and protecting his own— until “his own” get out of line.  The family was joined at the side, its members infallibly committed to each other, but one little slip up could blow it apart with violence and death. It’s enough to make the reader question if the mafia is really a family at all, or if “family” is one of its many lies.

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