Falling into the Mob
Steve Zousmer
(Permanent Press)
You and I might suspect that getting on the afternoon commute train from Grand Central to White Plains might not be a shape-shifting event in our lives, but for Phil Vail, it was just that.

He was late, had to run, but being sixty and a little out of shape, his managing to make the 4:53 was a miracle, and the passengers were bemused as he flopped into his seat next to a not too unattractive 40ish woman in the next seat.

All changed when some young black men boarded, tried to do some Mau-Mau on him. But, unlikely for a man who spent most of his days writing speeches for CEOs of major corporations, he managed to fend them off.

Until they took it upon themselves to get on Sylvia Sforza's case (the lady in the next seat over). With a few threats of bodily harm to her, she made a quick call to her Mobbish brothers, and once the train arrived at the station, the three young men got keelhauled by her muscular, street-smart brothers. One of the hoodlums found himself being dragged, down the stairs, face down, by these fellows in ski mask and pajama costumes.

Thus Phil's introduction to his future brothers-in-law and to his transformation from a sedate speech-writer to somehow becoming boss to one of five New York Mafia "families."

Phil's journey into this new territory is the subject of this engrossing, live-wire comedy of errors. And his introduction to the reality of being involved in the shenanigans of those who are willing to do a "sit-down" with their opponents (as much as murder them) - - - we learn that when push comes to shove, it's a thrilling lurch into the world of those who live on the dark side.

One thing that takes this one above the usual mobster novel is the rich banter. Here's Phil being introduced to the ins-and-outs of the Mob by an operative, while they are temporarily lodged in a well-known men's room in Manhattan.

    We went to the two far urinals. "Make like you're draining the lizard," he said.

    We both unzipped and pretended to pee. Taubman said, "The FBI's got listening devices that can pick up what you're saying almost anywhere.

    "They bug men's rooms at Madison Square Garden?"

    "Probably not but if they do, the air-conditioning and the flushing and the loudmouth fans drown it out. So look, let's get to the part that really goes against my grain because I have to say the magic word. Mafia.

    "We don't use this word. But I'll use it while you're learning. And of course your big question is, are we Mafia? Part of the oath when you get made is to never give a straight answer to that question. If you do you get clipped. I'm not made but I don't need to get clipped."

    "Clipped means killed?"

    "No, it means they put a big paper clip on your schwantz."

    He reached over and flushed my urinal repeatedly, apparently so the FBI wouldn't hear what came next.

    "The answer is yes and no. The Sforza crew is part of the Mafia organization chart so that's the yes. But the Sforza hate the Mafia and don't consider themselves Mafia, so in daily practice it's a no. Most of the time we work outside the Mafia. There's never been a set-up like this before. We have our own independent business entity, our own business model. Outsiders would tell you this could never happen, but it happened. Zip up."

    We zipped up and headed for the sinks, turning the water on at full force but not washing our hands.

It seems that Phil and Sylvia Sforza, after having met on the train, have this thing for each other, even though he is crowding the AARP homies' list, and she's barely in her forties. This union causes some anxiety back at the boss's ranch there in White Plains. The boss, Jake, Sylvia's father, is dying of cancer. The back and forth on this - - - Phil your regular honkie speech-writer and Sylvia, whose family has been Mobbing since day one - - - is one of the high points of the book, especially when Vail finds out that the original plan was to give him "two behind the ears" until Sylvia talked them out of it. Yes. Two behind the ears. Bullets.

§   §   §

What we get to watch is Phil's slow step-by-step coming up to the top of the chain, as it accrues to him, finding himself becoming one who finds power - - - absolute power - - - to be wonderful.

All this comes about as he unwittingly gets in a power struggle with Nicky. Nicky Vavolizza was to take over the Sforza's branch when Jake died, but Phil appeared on the scene, and now - - - he learns quickly - - - both have other ideas. The two of them are commanded by the Mafia commission, the committee of the Five Brothers, to work it out. Nicky and Phil arrange to meet at a bowling alley in Weaver Ridge.

    Vavolizza thudded toward us without a smile or a wave. His body language signaled the vexation of an important man being called out on a Sunday night to meet with a pissant nobody. He wore dress slacks and an expensive sports shirt with a geometric design that made me dizzy . . .

    I rose to greet him but remembered that wise guys don't do polite handshakes and we were obviously not fellow goom-bahs who would do cheek-kissing. As we came face to face I felt the intimidating push-back on his presence. There was also some push-back from the whiskey odor on his breath.

    "You're Phil?" Nicky asked, looking me over and smirking. "You got instructions from Sylvia?"

    "Sylvia doesn't give me instructions. I'm the boss . . . "

    I sat down on the red vinyl banquette where bowlers waited between balls. I noticed that the voice coming out of me wasn't my normal voice: I sounded strong. I was surprised until I realized I'd given myself permission to play a role, to lie, to be someone much different from the usual me.

    "I'll listen but I don't expect to buy nothing you're selling," he said, sitting down. "I don't even know who you are."

    "You should have watched my biography on the History Channel."

    "Sorry I missed it, I was taking a shit."

    "I'll fill you in. I started out in investment banking but that career turned out to be confining, if you know what I mean? So about fifteen years ago I got involved behind-the scenes with Jake. I worked with him on many deals. I helped him set up his global network. You didn't know he had a global network, did you? I brought in specialists of all kinds, including financial, legal, military, technological. Of course all my good work never came to your attention. Jake wanted it that way. He wanted you to be happy with your 1950s business model while we were getting into the new century."

This great tête-à-tête takes place towards the end of Falling into the Mob, and by the time you get to this point, it becomes something off-the-wall, truly delicious. Because Phil, a CEO speech-writing schmuck for all these years may be getting over the hill, but by the wonderful logic of author Zousmer, he's been transformed from a pale shill for corporate America into a smooth mobster boss, one who suddenly realized he'd given himself "permission to play a role, to lie, to be someone much different from the usual me."

And most of this speech is sheer gall, a pack of lies. Fifteen years? Hell, he just met Jake just a couple of weeks ago, has never in his born days been dealing with "financial, legal, military, technological" specialists. Moreover, he even gets to slip a sly one-upsman knife directly into Nicky's gut, Nicky apparently "happy with your 1950s business model while we were getting into the new century."

§   §   §

Falling into the Mob, is a kick-in-the-pants from the get-go, all the way up to and through three terrific fights, real Mob basheroos, the two of them falling down the stairs, Phil vs. Vavolizza, in a fancy restaurant in New York which I have to say has got to be one of the funniest mob-fight scenes I've ever run across.

And it leaves Phil's gang agog: "You won't believe what happened," Jilly said. "The boss kicked the shit out of Nicky Vavolizazza. Another terrific lie, but one that helps make this book such a rollicking can't-put-it-down romp, one that has Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture written all over it."

--- Lolita Lark
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