ONE WAY to get an interview with a tight-lipped Mafia figure is to ask him to discuss the violations of his civil rights by federal law enforcement agencies. Gangsters can bore a person for hours, whining about the alleged impingements upon their rights and freedoms by, among others, the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service. Predictably, all big-time mobsters speak out for strong personal privacy laws and against government-authorized electronic surveillance.

Mafia figures are basically punks and cowards, little men who prey upon the weak and powerless. Few have ever gone head-to-head, one-on-one in a real fight, and so they depend upon armed hired thugs to do their dirty work. Yet, despite the clear and present danger these bullies pose to the United States, they continue to be romanticized by the American public--which has been conditioned to hold more contempt for mythical Libyan death squads and youths who hang out on street corners.

Some members of the underworld have openly perpetuated the Mafia mystique. Contract killers, like Jimmy Fratianno, who are "flipped" by the government and become protected federal witnesses, can now look forward to six-figure contracts for their hit-man books, cameo appearances on television news programs, and some semblance of public respect--even after a life in violent crime. Somehow, in a weird way, such characters become bigger than life and are suddenly judged by different standards. Don't bother looking for any demonstrations of impartial justice in all of this; there are none to be found. Justice has been superseded by flashy public- relations campaigns and big advertising budgets. And even organized crime figures can be slickly packaged and sold by Madison Avenue just like an underarm deodorant.

The latest such hype concentrates on long-time Mafia boss Joe Bonanno, another crybaby who has written his autobiography, A Man of Honor. Actually, the book itself is a bigger joke than its title. Perhaps the smoothest piece of mob disinformation ever published, A Man of Honor is nothing more than a tribute to the Bill of Rights, proving that any American can write whatever he or she wants no matter how stupid or dishonest it is.

Although Bonanno goes into some detail about the customs, people, and structure of what he calls, "my Tradition," he of course insists that "there is no institution called 'the Mafia.' " Semantics aside, he justifies this criminal conspiracy: "The way of life I and my friends had chosen was but a means to attain social advancement and respectability. We didn't consider ourselves criminals."

Make no mistake why the 78-year old Bonanno has written this book. In September 1980, he was convicted of obstruction of justice and sentenced to five years in prison. En route to jail after his appeals have expired, Bonanno wants to get in a few last licks at the FBI-- which he blames for everything from his own criminal history to the death of his wife. The latter tale, in particular, is the most tasteless portion of his book. The FBI has known about Bonanno's self-serving autobiography for years. Soon after his conviction, federal agents found portions of the manuscript in Bonanno's garbage can-- which is exactly where A Man of Honor belongs.

Bonanno claims to be an "Old World" person who believes in traditional values: unquestioned loyalty, blind obedience, and absolute silence. Boasting of his honor at the end of the book, Bonanno writes, "Never in my life have I provided information that would send anyone to jail. This book is not an exception." Clearly, had Bonanno written anything to the contrary, his head would've been blown off long before this book was set into type. And, playing it really safe, he doesn't even mention the names of his closest criminal associates, including Carmine Galante, Carlos Marcello, Philip Rastelli, and Santos Trafficante.

In A Man of Honor, Bonanno prefers to recite poetry written by his son, Bill, another ex-con who was the principal character in Gay Talese's 1971 celebration of organized crime, Honor Thy Father, which chronicled the rise of the Bonanno crime family. In his own book, Bonanno discusses his wife's "Recipe of Life," and he goes on and on about how much he loves his dog. Hiding behind God and Country, Bonanno recalls praying with Billy Graham at the gangster's home in Tucson, and his tone seems to indicate that his eyes well up every time he hears the National Anthem. Readers are cautioned to wear dark glasses and lip gloss while going through the book; they'll get windburned from Bonanno constantly waving the flag in their faces.

For people who know the real Joe Bonanno and have a general understanding of organized crime, A Man of Honor is a laugh a minute. Reading this book is like watching the old Milton Berle show: you just can't believe what you're seeing.

However, for those whose contact with the underworld has been limited to watching James Cagney slap a half a grapefruit in Mae Clarke's doll-face in Public Enemy, this book is really dangerous. Its folksy style places the reader on Grandpa Bonanno's lap while he spins a few yarns about the old days and the old gang. Like E.T., Bonanno comes across as being unrelentingly charming. The danger here is that some people might take this trash seriously.

Much of the credit for the tone of the book belongs to, among others, Simon and Schuster's editor-in-chief, Michael (Power: How To Get It, How To Use It) Korda. Bonanno praises Korda "for recognizing the true me in the book." History is so badly distorted throughout A Man of Honor that it is difficult to believe that Simon and Schuster as much as questioned anything Bonanno placed in his book. Bonanno doesn't merely quibble with a few facts or take on a revisionist posture, instead he generally lies from cover to cover.

Epitomizing his dishonesty, Bonnano writes, "In my family, some activities were clearly considered out-of- bounds. I did not tolerate any dealings in . . . narcotics." Later on in the book, Bonanno repeats, "My Tradition outlaws narcotics." "It had always been understood that 'men of honor' don't deal in narcotics." This is simply untrue; the Bonanno family made millions and gained considerable influence from its sale of narcotics.

In 1954, French Corsican mobsters began processing large quantities of heroin. According to the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics, 60 percent of the drug traffic was eventually controlled by the Bonanno mob--which had been solicited by the Corsicans for distribution purposes in the United States. Bonanno's two point men in the conspiracy were his underboss, Carmine Galante--who was later indicted and convicted for narcotics trafficking-- and Bonanno's cousin, Stefano Magaddino, the crime boss in Buffalo who died in 1974.

Bonanno wants us to believe that he is nothing more than a gambler who made a few extra bucks running whisky during Prohibition. His tales about the Castellammarese and Banana Mafia Wars, as well as the 1957 Appalachin, New York, national mobster conference-- at which he was arrested although he now claims he did not attend--are more pathetic than anything else, because they had already been discredited years ago by various law enforcement agencies and the courts.

Joe Bonanno is an old man who has been a persona non grata to most of his underworld peers since the mid-1960s--after he had allegedly placed unsuccessful murder contracts on Mafia leaders Carlo Gambino and Thomas Lucchese. It is obvious that Bonanno hopes that A Man of Honor will give him some degree of public respect and immortality. He deserves neither.