MY FRIEND K. FINDS HIMSELF with a bit of a crush on John Gotti, reputed head of the reputed Mafia. This passion de punk troubles him, for he knows that Gotti is unworthy of his admiration. Yet, as is often the case in both literature and life, the heart overrules the head. He pines for the boss of all bosses.
Why? he asks me on the telephone. I tell him. K. is basically anti-establishment. He is essentially resentful of authority. He is, quintessentially, a realist and a cynic and -- above all -- a rebel. No matter what else Gotti may or may not be -- racketeer, killer, drug peddler and all-around bad person -- he is also a rebel. His occupation, if ever he filled out a form that asked for one, would be "defendant." The smile, the $2,000 suits, the wad of cash, the brazen walk -- these are all manifestations of the rebel's ultimate salute: the finger.
The day after I had deftly analyzed my friend K., the estimable Rex Reed was on television talking about the movie "The Godfather Part III." The reason Mafia pictures are so popular, he said, is because they involve both violence and glitter and lift us all out of our humdrum existences. No, I said to the television screen, other movies do that -- which is why, Rex, movies about the very rich were so popular during the Depression.
Of course, gangster movies were also popular during the '30s. But Mafia movies are different. They're about anger.
It's a strange kind of anger I have in mind. It is not an anger at a person or about a specific act. It is not even an anger based on injury, either emotional or physical, but rather a sense that the business of the world is unfairly conducted and that "they" unfairly benefit. I happen to subscribe a bit to that belief, which is why I too nod my head when some movie Mafioso waxes philosophical by noting that the entire world is a fixed roulette wheel. But the belief that "the house" always wins is not, with me, a completely firm conviction. With others, though, it is not only a conviction but the source of their anger and rebelliousness.
What's puzzling is that this anger/rebellion is often found in people who have the least reason to fight the system. K., for instance, is affluent, and has been all his life. Another friend of mine, yet another Mafia admirer, was comfortably ensconced in the middle class until recently when, suddenly, he became rich.
On the telephone, I told K. that his was, maybe, an incurable condition. Of course, I said, the ultimate example of rebels-without-a-proximate-cause were the once-infamous (but now merely famous) Hollywood communists who made some of those '30s gangster movies. They were out to destroy a system that had, in many cases, raised them from poverty to wealth solely on ability, often the ability to turn out a screenplay. I pointed out to K. that a certain genre of the mobster movies, usually made by Warner Bros., extolled in an almost subliminal way what might be called The School of Seething Rebellion.
The gangsters portrayed in these films were, of course, bad guys. But they were bad for a reason. They were often bad because they were poor. In fact, everything wrong with them had a Marxist explanation, although Karl himself might have been hard pressed to explain why James Cagney pushed a grapefruit into the puss of Mae Clarke. Poverty made them mean, but not so mean that they could not, at the same time, love their mothers, often excessively. This combination of Freud and Marx was, of course, fatal, in a tommy gun sort of way. Other exploited poor people, wearing badges, carried out the orders of the ruling class. This is the way things once worked.
But no more, I told K. on the phone. The trouble now, I told K., is that the various isms that had provided a subliminal theoretical structure for those movies are gone.
Freudianism is under attack and, outside of one shrink-filled building on Connecticut Avenue NW and several others in New York, is universally mocked, although wrongly so. Worse, given what has happened in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, it is pretty hard, almost illogical, to believe in either socialism or communism, especially communism, since it is a grand and colossal failure in both economic and moral terms. Socialism continues to have its adherents, but the entire body of thought is riddled with doubt.
For people such as K., I thought, this state of affairs should have been profoundly depressing. He no longer had anything in which to believe, an ism. He had long ago forsaken religion, and it would seem hypocritical now to return. K.'s emotional, irrational but totally charming rebelliousness now lacked a theoretical structure, a way in which it could be articulated. For all that ails capitalism -- and it is, of course, far from perfect -- there is no contrary ism.
On the phone, I offered to K. this historical-sociological-psychological expla- nation for his strange attraction to John Gotti, and he seemed, for a time, to be paying attention. Indeed -- was I imagining this? -- he seemed impressed, as if, at long last, I had explained to him that his lifelong bent for Marxism was rooted not in economics but in emotion. But when he continued talking, it appeared he had hardly listened at all. And so, on the phone, I realized that my fears for K. were misplaced. I thought he would wind up being the last socialist, a lonely and depressed man. But I was wrong. On the phone, his voice was animated, lively. "That Gotti," he said, his voice brimming with admiration. I was relieved.
K. can still believe.