Nicholas Pileggi has a gift for writing talk, and lately, it seems, career criminals just can't stop talking. So, like its predecessor, "Wiseguy," Pileggi's new book, "Casino," regales us with an ebullient first-person account of a criminal enterprise dying, not of wickedness or the rule of law, but of its own loquacity--of Oprah-philia and the lust for recognition. Because clearly, the guys talking to Pileggi are not just talking for money. They want to talk. The money is not enough anymore, it would seem, without the talk. And a lot of people are talking in "Casino."
So even when the narrative of "Casino" lacks the racketing, wired momentum of "Wiseguy," the story it tells is more complex and resonant, more fated and less hermetic. Also it's one of our favorite stories. "Camelot," no less. But in Las Vegas! With gangsters and showgirls--craps tables, not round tables--but Camelot still: the glittering promise of everything in spades, the ignominious fall into vanity and betrayal. Arthur and Lancelot and Guinevere go for it all. They try to change Vegas from an open city to a closed shop and fail. In failing, they precipitate the scandal that decimates the mob's power in Las Vegas.
"It should have been so sweet," one wiseguy says. "Everything was in place. We were given paradise on Earth, but we [messed] it all up." Which is not exactly Lerner and Loewe, but you get the idea.
In the role of the visionary Arthur, we have Frank (Lefty) Rosenthal of Chicago and South Florida, handicapper, game fixer and tactician extraordinaire--the unacknowledged mastermind of the Stardust and three other Las Vegas casinos during the late 1970s. Lefty's ambition is to maximize the cash flow gushing out of the casinos, to dominate it and divert a large percentage in his own direction. And he knows how to do it. He has the vision, the brains and the expertise. But early in his career, Lefty fails to heed the best advice he will ever get, and this failure proves fatal to his dreams.
"If you're going to be a professional gambler," this bookie named Gil Beckley tells him, "stay clean and stay invisible." But Lefty is incapable of doing either. He takes some busts for trying to fix basketball games and, being of a litigious temperament, gets into the papers with them. So when he comes to Vegas, the Feds see him coming, and Lefty's fated response to their unwanted attention is to become even more visible, and more litigious--to become a celebrity, in fact--which proves to be bad for business in more ways than one.
First the Feds, being faceless bureaucrats who hate celebrity in general, come to hate Lefty's celebrity in particular. Second, Lefty's boyhood pal, Anthony (Tony the Ant) Spilotro, comes to envy Lefty's celebrity with a vengeance, and covet Guinevere as well. Tony the Ant, of course, is the Lancelot of this piece, a diminutive, small-time hit man with a large propensity for violence. Around town, Tony is generally viewed as Lefty's strong right hand, but Tony has his own dream, dammit. He dreams of subordinating the free-style larceny on the open streets of Vegas to his own control and undertakes a campaign of intimidation and violence to achieve that end.
So here we have these two wiseguys with Arthurian visions of dominance and unification--a recipe for trouble on the unruly streets of Las Vegas. We add in Lefty's wife, Geri McGee Rosenthal, a one-time showgirl and part-time hooker, whose dazzling good looks are somewhat mitigated by her theatrical and erratic insecurity--and we have a recipe for real trouble. Then we factor in Lefty's arrogance, Tony's envy, the stress of perpetual surveillance, lots of crime, free money, cocaine and faulty impulse control, and it all begins to look like Fate with a capital F--and to sound like it.
It sounds right, too, in Pileggi's telling of it--a lot like the Las Vegas I call home. So, if it matters, I can assure you that Pileggi's version of this story matches up pretty well with the versions I have heard--from the daughter of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent who pulled Lefty Rosenthal from his flaming Cadillac; from the folks here in my apartment building, where Spilotro kept a hideaway to meet with Geri Rosenthal; from the blackjack dealers at the Stardust who remember those days, and from the kids in my classes at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas who went to school with the Spilotro and Rosenthal kids.
Everybody, it seems, in this town of exiles from America, knows a part of this story, and they all tell versions of the same story: about a couple of control freaks who failed to impose order on the invigorating chaos of their hometown. And these guys might have done it, of course, if they hadn't stopped wagering and started gambling. If they could have resisted the lights and the action. But nobody can do that. Nor should they. It's the only game in town--the one that distinguishes Las Vegas from the rest of America.
Finally, then, in getting Las Vegas right, Pileggi's "Casino" ends up feeling a bit like a casino itself--a good, scary ride and a generous spectacle. And even if you leave the table empty-handed, or empty-hearted, you've had the ride and seen the lights. You've had the rush while the dice are still bouncing, and you're spared the moral lecture as you walk away. Which is probably just as well, because if "Goodfellas" is any example, we will doubtless have full benefit of morals in Martin Scorsese's film of this book, due out next month. Because, as skillfully as Scorsese tells Pileggi's stories on film, the two are not really interested in the same thing.
Scorsese is interested in the difference of criminal culture, in its alien morality. Pileggi is beguiled by the similarities between that world and ours. So Pileggi gets the rock 'n' roll of it, sees in his narratives the everyday vanities of American life with the volume turned up. Scorsese frightens us with an alien culture, while making us more comfortable in our own. Pileggi amuses us, but he makes us nervous, too, because we recognize so much of what he shows us. So just this once, don't wait for the movie. Read the book. It's scary in a different way. The same old Camelot.
"Casino," read by Joe Grifasi, is available from Simon & Schuster ($18; two cassettes, abridged).