Russell Shorto’s Grandpa Was a ‘Smalltime’ Mobster
A story by My Family and Mob
By Russell Shorto
In the hierarchy of literary honor, fiction is king, followed by historical fiction and, last, nuanced memoir. For those who have never practiced it, or who practice it badly, memoir writing is a resurgence of life events. But a well-crafted memoir includes archival research, hours of taped interviews, and a narrative structure that leaves more on the cutting-room floor than on the page.
Reporting on your own life or on the lives of people sharing your DNA can be a lot more challenging than reporting on strangers. For starters, some friends and family will hate you for it. But the main difference is the emotional investment – and the emotional payoff – that could push the memoir to the top of the literary heap.
In his new book, “Smalltime”, after much strangulation and hedging about not being a memoirist, Russell Shorto – a master of historical fiction – digs up facts on his family. So far, Shorto has mostly written books about people he has never met, trying to get inside Peter Stuyvesant’s head.Islands in the center of the world“; Baruch Spinoza “Amsterdam“; And George Washington in his last book, “Revolution song. “But the most attractive characters in those books – for Shurto and for the reader – are always the ones that history has forgotten.
An Italian-American whose family name was long ago changed from Scianto, Shurto comes from a small-time criminal clan in Jonestown, Pa., People you’ve never heard of before. History has not forgotten them. It never knew who to begin with.
Shorto’s search for his long-dead grandfather and name Russell, Russell “Rus” Shorto, includes FBI documents, newspaper archives, police records and, most difficultly, intense intimate communication with his own father, Tony. The bookies and bosses of the tough, Russell was a quiet power broker in southwestern Pennsylvania in the 1940s and anyone in the ’50s, who was not even his son, knows it very well.
The Italian dacoits, Shorto argues, were no worse than the unethical bandits of the late 19th century. Through illegal lotteries, men like Russell provided hope to steel mill and factory workers to make it big and survive their overbearing lives.
Shurto awkwardly dances around his grandfather’s story, giving us some fascinating history on the number racket, the Johnstown flood, Prohibition, his Sicilian roots and Frank Sinatra’s lyrics.
Eventually, Shurto goes to the mattress.
In nursing homes, hospitals, and a Holiday Inn, he “meets the boys”, the knower who knew his grandfather, such as Frankie, a sociopath named Mike and Rip, as well as the girls who came back in the day. The narrative comes from the tension of whether Shorto will uncover Grandpa’s mystery before these witnesses – Tony included – die of natural causes. These people are in their 80s. It is a race against time, like all historical digs.
To tease us, he threw some blood in our way, a murder that may or may not do anything for his family. The move is dishonest like his grandfather’s fixed card game. Through a sleight of hand that his grandfather would appreciate, Shorto turned his mark about halfway through his story. The true drama is not found in the murder or scandal or detailed interpretation of the Pennsylvania mob. This is all just context.
Goosebumps’ revelations are not in the long pile of criminal records that he and Tony expose together but in the rags to bewitched and unhappy lives in the relationship – mostly women and children – that he manipulated and ruined.
In the end, this is not a mob story. This is a story of family dynamics. Of love and loss and betrayal. Shorto’s hometown. With his relationship with his father and with his father’s relationship his father. In other words, it is a family memoir. Whether or not Shorto likes it.
His reluctance – perhaps a mere literary device – is a road. But once on Shortho Highway, steering us with an eye for his usual humor and cleverness, settling for an hour from his hometown for easy access, we’re with him. All the way, as Sinatra says.