GOOMBATA

The Improbable Rise and Fall of John Gotti and His Gang

By John Cummings and Ernest Volkman

Little, Brown. 228 pp. $19.95

Last month the New York Daily News hit the newsstands asking "Who's the Lucky Girl?" with the kind of front-page headline that used to be reserved for scions of the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts.

The story, which unhappily underscores the decline of New York as well as its resident Mafia families, was about "whispers of wedding bells" for John Gotti Jr. and a putative bride whose name no one in the Queens neighborhood of Ozone Park would disclose to the press.

The reason for all this attention is laid out in a curiously fascinating, and frustrating, book called "Goombata," the plural of a Sicilian slang word that can mean "godfather" or "accomplice" or "old pal."

It is, first off, a book about John Gotti and his gang. It is, on that level, a smoothly knowledgeable, sometimes rambling account.

Born in East Harlem in 1940, Gotti moved with his family to the Brooklyn flatlands at age 12, a bright but terrible-tempered boy in a neighborhood where bookmakers and loan sharks did business on the street corners in broad daylight.

People like Gotti's immigrant father, a sanitation department worker, had little to show for his sweat. According to the authors, two former Newsday reporters, it was perfectly natural for young Gotti and his friends to be "dazzled" by the big bankrolls and diamond pinkie rings sported by the hoods of East New York.

So whom did Gotti pick as his role model? Frank Costello, maybe, prime minister of crime, a man who hated violence and shrewdly courted politicians and police?

No. Gotti, we are told, had "a clear vision of his future, which was to become a Mafia kingpin in the mold of Albert Anastasia," a homicidal maniac who ran Murder Inc. and is best remembered for his own execution in a Manhattan barber's chair. Gotti was 17, a junior bookmaker and apprentice wise guy across the East River.

Most of Gotti's career has been chronicled ad nauseam in the New York press. The disappearance of a neighbor, reportedly dismembered by a chain saw for accidentally running over Gotti's young son. Gotti's involvement in the ham-handed killing of a West Side Irish gangster, in front of a barful of witnesses. The disastrous prosecution of Gotti in Brooklyn on federal racketeering charges that ended in March 1987 with acquittal on all counts.

By then, Gotti was a godfather, head of the Gambino family, thanks to the death by cancer on Dec. 2, 1985, of his mentor, under-boss Aniello Dellacroce. A lord high executioner for the mob, a man who liked to tell his victims how he was going to kill them, Dellacroce was a fearsome figure, even in his old age. (He was an FBI informant as well, a fact the authors do not mention.) Mutterings from other Mafia families, as well as from Gotti, about Gambino boss Paul Castellano remained muted while Dellacroce was alive.

Two weeks after Dellacroce died, "Big Paulie," a shrewd businessman who often outmaneuvered rival bosses, was murdered outside an East Side restaurant where he was to have had a sit-down with Gotti. Castellano was angry with him because of narcotics trafficking by Gotti's Ozone Park crew and furious about FBI tapes of a loud-mouthed Gotti sidekick, tapes that Castellano wanted to hear.

The other Mafia families, the authors point out, were angry at Castellano for constantly angling for a bigger slice of the citywide concrete cartel in which all were supposed to share. Taking advantage of this resentment, Gotti decided to "kill Castellano before he could kill John Gotti."

It was a popular move. At a Christmas Eve reception at the Ravenite Social Club, Dellacroce's old hangout, Gambino family capos "fell over each other" to kiss the new godfather.

Gotti is no Carlo Gambino or even a Paul Castellano. But the New York media fall all over him. "In the city of the Power Lunch, the Power Tie, and the Power Haircut," the book says, John Gotti is hot copy, a man who disdains Mafia wisdom about staying out of the headlines, a hero to "mob yuppies" unhappy with the old ways.

Those "yuppies" who don't know the value of silence are also enjoying much shorter careers. Gotti so far has stayed ahead of the cops, despite the book's premature subtitle. But it should come as no surprise that the rough-hewn mobster had to wait 20 years, until 1977, before he was inducted into La Cosa Nostra as a "made" man.

"You know, he wears these expensive suits now, but he's still a lot of {expletive}; he's still a mutt," one of Gotti's goombata is quoted as saying.

The best parts of the book, in fact, are not about Gotti, but about the goombahs and gumshoes around him. They include Angelo Ruggiero, a compulsive chatterbox whose telephone was "a gushing fountain" for the FBI; John Gurnee, a New York police detective who brazenly entered the Ravenite one night with drugged meatballs for Dellacroce's monstrous watchdog; Willie Boy Johnson, a half-Indian, half-Italian buddy of Gotti who served as an FBI and police informant for 16 years before his murder in 1988, and Michael "the Falcon" Falciano, a metaphysically minded detective who knew how to handle himself on the witness stand.

What is frustrating about the book is that too much of it reads a fast rewrite from the newspapers of yesteryear. Mafia lore and dubious sociology are presented as fact in the same unqualified manner that accompanies presumably taped conversations between modern-day Mafia gangsters. Inexcusably, there are no footnotes to help the reader decide what is established fact and what is not.

Some assertions just don't sound right. "Goombata" says, for example, that Albert Anastasia and Vito Genovese were afraid that Frank Costello's "corporate style would turn the Mafia into a mom-and-pop grocery store." Costello was in fact a modernizer.

At another point, the reader is informed that in Italian American families, "traditionally, sons are named after one of the Twelve Apostles." So where did all the Carloses, Vitos, Carmines, Dominics and Anthonys come from? Someone should have told their mothers.

The reviewer is a reporter on the national staff of The Washington Post.