Picks and Pans Review: Sins of the Father

UPDATED 10/23/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 10/23/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

by Nick Taylor

Salvatore "Crazy Sal" Polisi, the focus, though hardly the hero, of this absorbing nonfiction book, was a career criminal. Through the years, working for both the Carlo Gambino and Joseph Colombo branches of New York organized crime, Polisi ran gambling clubs, operated auto chop shops, sold drugs, heisted jewels and pulled a gun whenever the need arose. He was a true family man, loyal to his crime bosses, devoted to his wife, Rose Marie, and two sons, Joseph and Sal Jr.

Then, in 1982, after more than two decades of cons and schemes, Sal Polisi had a change of heart. He decided it was time to start clean, to show his sons that there was more to life than tapped phones, late-night meetings in parked cars and stiff jail terms. Polisi moved his family out of the mob action to Port Jervis, in Upstate New York, setting up shop with a kart-racing business. There, for a couple of years, he was content as he watched Sal Jr. grow into a high school football star, a sure bet for a college scholarship.

The content didn't last. The first time Polisi was short of cash, he went back to the fast way. He started running cocaine from Port Jervis into New York City to keep the kart racetrack from falling flat. Then, on May 3, 1984, the evening of his 17th-wedding-anniversary celebration, Sal Polisi was busted in a Queens parking lot, four ounces of cocaine in his hand.

Polisi was given a choice. Take the fall and serve a sentence that could total 35 years behind bars, or turn government informant and begin again with a new identity for himself and his family under the federal Witness Protection Program. Polisi agreed to talk, and his testimony was used in cases against a state judge and a number of mobsters, including longtime pal and Gambino family don, John Gotti.

Polisi's protected new world was as filled with risk as his old one. Sal Jr. had a new name, but he was still a football star; his picture was in the local paper, easy to spot. The tensions of having testified against friends gnawed at Polisi too. The inquisitive neighbors, the lack of freedom, the fear of being seen, all took a toll. For Polisi, the decision was clear: To keep his family together, he had to break it up. He sent Sal Jr. to California to live with friends; his wife and younger son kept moving from motel to motel.

Sins of the Father turns a glaring light on a mobster's life and the effects of that life on his family, stripping away any romantic notions that may be left over from the glory days of The Godfather. The final price that's exacted is much too high to have been worth it.

Here he is asked a question by an FBI agent:

" 'Have you thought any more about what you want to do?' he said.

" 'Maybe I should just prepare myself.'

" 'What does that mean?'

" 'Get some guns. A couple of thirty-ought-sixes, three-by-nine power Weaver scopes, maybe a Winchester thirty-thirty. Whatever I need, and a couple of pistols. Head for the hills and tool up for an onslaught of the wiseguys.'

" 'Oh, my God, Sal,' Rose Marie interjected."

Taylor, a free-lance writer, has done an admirable job with Polisi's story, which grew out of a New York magazine article. He doesn't take sides. Sal is a crook who loves the thrill of crime—the thought of working for a living never finds room in his mind. Rose Marie is the dedicated mob wife, her iron nerves rattled beyond repair by the daily threats to her husband and children. The boys are understanding jocks who with great difficulty have to come to grips with their father and his past.

As for Polisi himself, he is still free, still out there, still afraid of the next shadow he may meet. (Simon and Schuster, $19.95)

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