Picks and Pans Review: Underboss

updated 06/02/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/02/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Peter Maas

First, a word to Sammy the Bull...sorry, Mr. Gravano: I think you're a stand-up guy and a real straight-shooter, and your new book with Peter Maas is just terrific, and any teensy-weensy problem I have with it is nothing personal against you, wherever you are. After all, the book is already a bestseller, and who's going to read this lousy review anyway, right, Sammy? May I call you Sammy?

The truth is, Underboss is an absorbing, intimate, alluring tale of power, greed and Mob intrigue. Maas, who wrote the 1969 Mafia exposé The Valachi Papers, largely gets out of the way in Underboss and lets Gravano put his own spin on his transformation from a murderous mobster into the federal informant who helped jail John Gotti. Sure, Gravano participated in 18 or 19 hits, but he claims he personally killed only one man. And, yes, he did nothing when gangsters whacked his brother-in-law. What else could someone bound by blood to his crime family do? Even Gravano's testimony against Gotti in a 1991 murder case is depicted not as saving his own skin (he was sentenced to five years in prison and is now free, while Gotti got life) but as a valiant attempt to bring down a decaying Cosa Nostra.

None of Gravano's self-serving recollections should soften our revulsion for the man, but strangely they do. His streetwise eloquence and man-of-honor bluster make it easy to identify with him as he matches wits and muscles with less principled mobsters, most notably the arrogant Gotti. What's more, Gravano's Mafia musings can be pretty funny. ("You can't stay a thug forever," he explains. "At some point you have to learn to be a racketeer as well.") Underboss's ability to make the reader sometimes root for a cold-blooded killer has to be the literary trick of the year—and, Sammy, I mean cold-blooded as a compliment. (HarperCollins, $25)

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