After growing up hearing mob tales and names from the Five Families, William Boyle reflects on what drew him to the mob genre and inspired some of his projects, such as his newest novel A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself.
I grew up on the border of Bensonhurst and Gravesend in Brooklyn, and the air was always heavy with mob tales. Gaspipe Casso was the previous resident of the apartment where my mother and I lived. My grandfather told stories about him, said he was “a nice enough guy.” I heard other names from the Five Families: Bonanno, Gambino, Colombo, Genovese, and Lucchese. I heard the term connected here and there, followed by an old thumb of the nose. Frank DeCicco was blown up in his Buick Electra on the corner of Bay Eighth and Eighty-sixth Street when I was eight (Casso, it was later discovered, was responsible). Sammy “The Bull” Gravano was from Bensonhurst—that was a name people said a lot in the ’80s and ’90s. I was fascinated both by the stories and by the names themselves; the nicknames, the musical Italian surnames.
I was half-Italian but saddled with a Scottish handle that rhymed with too many words designed to make a punchline of me (oil, foil, soil). I memorized Goodfellas and The Godfather I and II. I was a reader. My library card got me the stories I didn’t know I needed. My favorite book was Jay Robert Nash’s Bloodletters and Badmen: A Narrative Encyclopedia of American Criminals from the Pilgrims to the Present. It became my Bible. I read from it daily. I wasn’t interested in the serial killers, but I loved reading about outlaws and mobsters, and I was fascinated by the line between legend and reality. At twelve, thirteen, I became pretty obsessed. I spent a lot of my time holed up in the library, collecting information I thought I might use in my own script or book. I did write scripts and stories, some of them beautifully bad, and I’m not-so-secretly glad that my inclination wasn’t journalistic—I liked the bombast, the invention angle, the power of ginning up a tale for greater impact. This penchant for myth and legend heavily influenced how I write fiction, as I don’t generally feel trapped by the confines of realism.
My newest novel, A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself, is the direct result of all the listening I did growing up, the culmination of what I was working toward. The world of the novel is somewhere between those whispered legends and the real world of cracked sidewalks and crumbling houses; it’s a world of vice where mobsters are gunned down and con artists have the blood of saints. Here’s some of the main New York lore that fueled my imagination as a kid:
2. Anthony “Gaspipe” Casso
Growing up in the apartment where a homicidal Mafia maniac used to live does something to you, I guess. Just that name: Gaspipe. I used to marvel at it. What did it mean? There was no real way to know. You just had to wonder, rely on hearsay. Did he make people suck on a gas pipe? My neighbors were the Carlos, whose son Philip would eventually (in 2008) publish a book on Casso, Gaspipe: Confessions of a Mafia Boss. That book would include a picture of the two-family house where I grew up (the address just slightly off): first my mother and I lived in the ground-floor apartment where Casso and his wife had previously resided, and then we moved into the larger upstairs apartment when my mom remarried. As an adult, Carlo’s book gave me many insights into Casso’s story, but all I knew as a kid was what I heard. And what I heard was the stuff of movies: stolen trucks, crooked cops on the payroll, hits, secret meetings, wiretaps, cars blown to shreds. I imagined Gaspipe and his wife (I thought of her as Mrs. Gaspipe) in the kitchen that I knew intimately, staring at the same walls, drawing water from the same sink. I imagined that Casso spent a lot of time in the living room, trying to figure out his next move. I remember thinking that doing bad things must be taxing as hell.
3. Abe “Kid Twist” Reles
This was another case of me falling in love with a name first. Kid Twist—that was magic. I encountered Reles in various books. His mob career was of interest to me, but what really ignited my imagination were the circumstances of his death. Having turned government witness after being collared for a number of murders, Reles was holed up at the Half Moon Hotel in Coney Island under police protection. This was November 1941. He fell to his death from the window of his sixth-floor room. Most people believed he was thrown or pushed out, but the room had been arranged to look like he was trying to escape. I thought often of Reles’s fall, how Coney must’ve looked to him on the way down. The Half Moon Hotel became a hospital in the late ’40s and, later, a senior citizens’ home; in 1995, the fourteen-story building was demolished. I marveled at the fact that a place like that had once existed in Coney Island, a 225-foot-tall, fourteen-story hotel that had opened in 1927 when so much must’ve seemed possible. I marveled at the fact that a mobster-turned-stool-pigeon could be holed up there; I remember sketching scenes, imagining what that must’ve been like. In my lifetime, Coney Island had become a ghost of its former self, but the past lived there in such an intense way. As a kid, whenever I went, I took in the building that was the Half Moon (it wasn’t demolished until I was seventeen), and I listened hard for Kid Twist screaming across all those years.
4. Francis “Two-Gun” Crowley
The story of Francis “Two-Gun” Crowley is one I encountered in Nash’s Bloodletters and Badmen. My interest wasn’t only in the Mafia but also—sometimes especially—in Depression-era desperados. I loved reading about John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd, and Two-Gun Crowley was the New York equivalent. I read his six-page entry in Bloodletters and Badmen over and over: born on the ropes, illegitimate; foster home; an education that stopped at third grade; a love for gangster movies; a deep and abiding hatred for cops (rooted in the belief that his no-good grandfather had been a cop); working in a factory by age twelve; teaming up, in his late teens, with Rudolph “Fats” Duringer, with whom he’d commit several holdups. It was in the act of executing these holdups that Crowley would find his purpose: he liked the excitement. Nash writes: “Like novelist Willard Motley’s Nick Romano in Knock on Any Door, he wanted to ‘live hard, die young, and have a good-looking corpse.’” That was my first encounter with that sentiment, at least two years before I’d hear it in True Romance, and—having already become pretty obsessed with William Wellman’s The Public Enemy, starring Jimmy Cagney—I thrilled at the idea of writing a movie about Crowley. I couldn’t believe no one else had. I went to the library and did all the research I could. When the info at my local branch dried up, my stepdad took me to the library at Kingsborough Community College (where he taught as an adjunct professor two nights a week). It was there that I hit the microfilm hard, digging up headlines on Crowley from 1931: his turn from penny-ante bank robber to cold-blooded murderer; a marked man at twenty years old; hiding out in the city with his sixteen-year-old girlfriend, Helen Walsh; his subsequent gun battle with three hundred police officers on West Ninetieth Street, witnessed by a crowd of fifteen thousand bystanders; his Cagney-esque lines (“You ain’t gonna take me alive, coppers!”); his trial and execution all playing out with the necessary drama. It was almost too much for my young mind to take. I kept all of my notes and the copies of newspaper articles in a blue folder with Top Secret written in Sharpie across the front. I was thirteen, and I didn’t know much, but I knew this would be my Bonnie and Clyde. I did, in fact, work on something that must’ve approximated a Two-Gun film script for a year or so—those pages exist somewhere in my grandparents’ attic—but, by fourteen or fifteen, I’d moved on from Crowley, though he never quite fully exited my imagination.
William Boyle is the author of Gravesend and The Lonely Witness. His newest novel, A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself, is out March 5 in the US from Pegasus Crime and March 21 in the UK from No Exit Press.