My son is a big gangster-mafia book buff and is always offering a new paperback on some various crime lord. Because that genre holds zero interest for me, I politely decline. But eventually I have been worn down. A Man of Honor, The Autobiography of Joseph Bonanno, has been my lunchtime read for the last few weeks. It’s not gory, and it is well-written. Bonanno liked to think of himself as the intellectual father of one of New York’s Five Families. Allegedly Vito Corleone was based on Bonanno, which I could see, and I’m only halfway through the book. Bonanno is smart, subtle, oh my goodness he is subtle. He’s also witty, thoughtful, and well learned. Yesterday I read about an inscription over the Teatro Massimo, a large theater in Italy. Bonanno was visiting his homeland, and offered this quote, one he said he knew by heart:
Art renews people and reveals their lives. Vain the pleasure from these scenes if you don’t contemplate them to prepare for the future.
Bonanno has been leading the reader up to where his downfall begins, which he doesn’t mind noting within the chapter. He’s a straightforward kind of guy, but appreciates art, subtly, history. He doesn’t come across as an out-for-blood gangster, preferring a quiet, orderly life. He likes good food, outings with friends, loves his wife and children. And if what he says about that quote is truthful, he is aware of art’s place in life. Art and history both.
What strikes me most about this book, especially in my news-overload funk, is the simplicity of Bonanno’s heyday, the 1930s-1950s. But it’s not just the times, it’s The Tradition, a Sicilian tradition, which Bonanno takes great pains to note is not that of America, even if he’s living in The Volcano (New York City). It’s about people, a family. He’s the Father, yet he never says Godfather. Just a Father, which he does seem to liken to a god of sorts, a caretaker, a man who draws to him those who wish to be within a clan, some for ill-gotten purposes, but not all. Bonanno gently chides those fathers who are American first, guiding their families like CEOs. He sees that manner as very empty, all business-oriented. His family is not run that way.
Not that those within his family were all angels. This isn’t a book so much about Bonanno’s time in the mafia; it’s also a treatise on human relationships. When he visits Italy, Bonanno is struck by the warmth of the people, which he doesn’t find in The Volcano. True Italians exude friendliness, compassion, interest. He notes that Italy’s government isn’t ideal, he’s not blind. But the intimacy cannot be denied; these people care about one another, are truly one family.
Now, that was in the 1950s. I’ve never been to Italy, who is to say those same values still hold in the twenty-first century? Yet, I’d hazard a guess that compared to America, Italy might nudge us out for exemplary hospitality. I live in a densely populated area of California, also in the probable technology capital of the world. Silicon Valley buzzes with techie excitement, but in my opinion is lacking in humanity. Often my soul feels squeezed, especially on the roadways; everyone is aching to get to their destination as quickly as possible, and if that means not very carefully, so be it. I made myself a playlist filled with Audio Adrenaline, Relient K, Newsboys, and Rebecca St. James entitled Driving on 680/280, a freeway that runs from San Francisco to San Jose as 280, then goes north as 680 until it reaches I-80 in Fairfield. Drivers traversing 680/280 at its most southern end basically live somewhere here in Silicon Valley, be it San Jose, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Fremont, etc. And just from the way they drive, I feel like many of them have lost the notion of the art of living.
Life isn’t this moment; it’s the sum, the totality. Yes, right now is all I have, but what I do now bumps into what occurs this afternoon, next week, six months down the road. Bonanno led his family in a relatively quiet direction; his wasn’t the richest or most powerful, but he was dedicated to those who chose him as Father, and I await to read the machinations behind his downfall. But most of us aren’t the leaders of organized crime ventures, or enormous corporations. We’re just average joes, getting up in the morning, going to bed at night. Yet, I’m brought back to that inscription; art renews people, reveals their lives. Does that just apply to the artist? No, I don’t think so.
In my writing, I expand on the themes of love, equality, and mercy. But as an ordinary wife, mother, and dweller in Silicon Valley in 2013, I feel somewhat lost. Maybe it’s just realizing my mid-forties are sliding toward turning fifty. Cranky old lady springs to mind; perhaps there is no way to escape the gnawing sense of virtues lost, kindness and patience. Recently I was grousing to my husband about it; humans have made great strides in erasing prejudice, but as if our hearts are only capable of a limited sense of tolerance, exasperation and disdain have gained invisible but concrete footholds.
Or maybe I’ve been living in a big city for too long.
It’s not just on the roadways I encounter this slight but tangible hostility. Technology has made life easier; it has also opened up a vast array of ways for cruelty to be dispersed. The better angels of our natures fight with the overwhelming sense of lesser upstanding qualities. Sometimes all of America feels like a volcano, erupting in violence and mayhem.
There’s another quote: Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. Perhaps that is also what the Teatro Massimo’s inscription alludes to. There is little I can do as a single entity to battle corruption and anger, hatred and insolence. Sometimes I feel like even my contributions in this corner of Silicon Valley go amiss. But the inscription that Joseph Bonanno knew by heart calls out to me, wisdom I never would have discovered unless my son hand’t badgered me into reading it. I probably won’t choose another mafia book, but one never knows from where inspiration and knowledge will strike. Bonanno certainly wasn’t thinking about me as a possible reader when he wrote this book, just as I can’t fathom who might peruse my novels in years to come. That alone lifts my heart to keep writing even when it feels difficult, or publishing seems fraught with roadblocks. Art renews people and reveals their lives. Vain the pleasure from these scenes if you don’t contemplate them to prepare for the future.