There is something about the Italian-American crime syndicate that continues to fascinate American culture. The larger than life characters that appeared on television and in newspapers have been immortalized in movies and documentaries. Their close-knit organization which we have come to know as the Mafia, became as American as apple pie. Violence, money, sex and power become staples of the gangster’s life. Many of them die before their time as the street life inevitably catches up with them. John Alite knows this all too well. The former hit man for the late Gambino Family boss John Gotti (1940-2002), served several years in prison after being extradited from Brazil in 2006. He later agreed to testify against a former associate which reduced his sentence. In 2017 he was released from supervised parole.
When I saw this book on Amazon it immediately grabbed my attention. As a New York City native, I vividly remember the time when the Mafia controlled nearly every industry in the city with an iron grip that was broken main by the RICO Act. Alite was in a unique position similar to another associate who also agreed to help prosecutors, Sammy “The Bull” Gravano. The better days of the Mafia are long past but the memories of its reign of terror remain firmly fixed in the minds of many. From the beginning, Alite’s story pulls the reader in and mainly because unlike Gotti, he his not of Italian heritage. In fact, his family comes from Albania. And his childhood is composed of a three-generation family, an environment in which I myself grew up in. Those familiar with Eastern Europe will recognized the profound differences between Italian and Albanian culture. What helps make Alite’s story interesting are the dynamics between family members and the struggle by his parents and grandparents as they adjusted to a new country with a language they had to learn later in life. To enforce the point, phrases of Albanian spoken by Alite’s parents and grandparents are peppered throughout the story. And it is clear that his Albanian heritage was and is a source of pride. However, every story has an antagonist and Alite’s is no different.
I should point out right now that this book is part one in what will surely be either a two or three book series. This story is strictly about his childhood and his slowly descent into rebelliousness and a life of crime. But perhaps, no other relationship was as critical in this development than that between him and his father Meti (Matthew). This is the crux of the book and Alite pointedly states that it was his father’s teachings that made it easy for him to end up in the life of crime later in his life. Today it would be considered abuse but back then, what went on at home often stayed at home. Under their roof existed a tyrant whose life was complicated and stressful and unfortunately led to outbursts of violence that affected each person in their own way. But ironically, love also exists at home but it is carefully guarded by some and shown in different ways. The fondness Alite had for his grandparents is endearing and an example of the importance of the bond that should exist between multiple generations. The old country lives with the new country in a land with completely rules and customs. An in a climactic scene between Alite and his father, we see the different ways of life come to a head in what could only be described as the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The story takes place in the Woodhaven section of Queens, New York. Readers that are from Queens or familiar with the neighborhood and era will nod in agreement at some of the things he recounts. Queens truly is the borough of immigrants and for this Albanian family it would prove to be a blessing and a curse for their young boys. The budding baseball player and boxer sometimes crippled with epileptic seizures grows fast and tough on the streets of Queens. At the conclusion of the book, he has begun to embark on the path that would lead him into the clutches of the Gambino Crime Family where the stakes are higher and the activities and conspirators far more deadly. If the writers continue on the path set in this first part, the second will be an even better read.