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Honor Thy Father

The Mafia — the most discussed, least understood subject in America — is a syndicate of approximately 5,000 men belonging to twenty-four separate "families" located in major cities in every region in the United States. Since the Prohibition era, it has specialized in providing those illegal commodities which human appetites crave.

It is a risky business at best. Sidewalks have been littered with bodies because of "misunderstandings" between mafiosi. Yet, since the survivors in Mafia society are most often as quiet as corpses, there has never been a factual account of the Mafia world from the inside: what their homes look like, what they say to their wives, what they tell their children about themselves, what their children come to know without being told. But the "inside" book that has so far eluded other writers has now been written by best-selling author Gay Talese.

In this monumental work — packed with fascinating, intimate details and brilliant reporting and written in the style of a novel — Talese portrays the secret society as they (and he) have lived it in the six years he traveled with the individuals who have so dominated the crime charts of crime-busting senators.

The book begins on a rainy Tuesday night in October 1964 when, on Park Avenue in New York, the famous Mafia chieftain Joseph Bonanno — whose father in Sicily was a "man of respect" and whose college-educated son was his top lieutenant — was kidnapped by two mobsters and reported by the police as dead on the following morning. Eighteen months (and several corpses) later Joseph Bonanno reappeared as strangely as he had disappeared, setting off a Mafia feud that came to be known as the Banana War.

Talese covers the Banana War in intimate detail. The reader gets extraordinary glimpses of men on the run, of "hits" and "misses," and, later, the wives and children and other members of a society that viewers of The Godfather know in fictional terms. But Talese's book is fact. And in this case fact is more fantastic than fiction.

Talese traveled to western Sicily to live in Mafia mountain villages in order to trace the origin of his characters. His book focuses on the Bonanno family — three generations of it. Woven into the tale are the big dons of the twentieth century — Vito Genovese, Lucky Luciano, Joseph Profaci, dozens more. For once the mafiosi are revealed not as merely names in headlines or on crime charts or as wooden figures in books written by retired district attorneys and detectives. Gay Talese brings to the American consciousness a world and a life previously known to only a few. No other book has done more to acquaint this country with the fascinating feuds, secrets, and frightening personalities of the secret organization known as the Mafia.

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The 2009 edition is newly updated, with an introduction by Peter Hamill:

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