Friday, September 16, 2016

Booknote: Casino

Nicholas Pileggi, Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. ISBN: 0-684-80832-3.

Genre: nonfiction
Subgenre: true crime, mobsters, Mafia, casinos, gambling, Las Vegas
Format: hardcover
Source: Hutchins Library at Berea College

This is the book that is the basis for the film of the same title where Robert De Niro plays Ace Rothstein. Ace Rothstein is the name they used in lieu of the real Lefty Rosenthal. In fact, the film changes the names of the characters from the book, in some cases only slightly. If you already saw the film and then you read the book as I did, you will recognize characters right away. You might even find yourself seeing the book characters as the authors who portrayed them now and then. It can be interesting to see the changes from book to film.

The book itself is pretty good, but you can tell the film makers trimmed a lot of it to make the film. The book is very detailed when it comes to how casinos in Las Vegas operated back in the 1970s and the extensive corruption behind those operations. If you are a reader who likes to learn how the machinery ran, this is a book for you as it goes into a lot of the small details that made the casino run. In addition, unlike the movie, the book goes into Lefty's background and rise. In the film, he is pretty much at the top of his game and ready to run the casino. In the book, we get to see a young Lefty Rosenthal learning his gambling and handicapping craft, including some early mistakes, mistakes that taught him valuable lessons. He was young once, and he had to learn a few things the hard way.

The book's narrative structure is in small segments. It's kind of like those interviews they do in some reality shows between the show segments where contestants look back on the scenes the audience just saw. In the book, points of view shift so one moment we get Lefty, another we may get Tony Spilotro, and another we get one of the FBI agents who had them under surveillance. The narrative moves back and forth between points of view, which allows the reader to get a broader picture of the events.

While the book has interesting moments, it also gives a lot of minutiae at times. The film makes did take a lot of that out to make a relatively tight film. There are some parts in the book that can be fairly slow to read through.

In the end, though the book's subtitle is "Love and Honor in Las Vegas," there is no really much love. Lefty marries Geri out of naive love, but she did it for money and convenience. As for honor, there really is not any honor among thieves, and they were all thieves in one form or another; even some of the members of law enforcement were corrupt, and the Las Vegas Gaming Commission was often a racket of its own. In the end, greed, a lack of discipline, a desire for the spotlight when discretion was essential, and just some really stupid mistakes drove the mobsters of paradise.

Overall I liked this book. If you enjoyed the film, you will likely enjoy the book. Do keep in mind that the films has the essence of the book. You see a lot more in the book, which can be a plus or a minus.

3 out of 5 stars.

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Some additional reading notes:

Geri really made her living as a hustler, hustling chips in casinos and partying with high rollers, making $300K to $500K a year. She had a "real job" as a dancer in one of the casinos for $20K a year, but that was to keep her work permit to show she was "gainfully employed." Much of the hustle included "taking care of people," in other words, slip money here, bribe there, to keep the wheels turning:

"Las Vegas is a city of kickbacks. A desert city of greased palms. A place where a $20 bill can buy approval, a $100 bill adulation, and a $1,000 bill canonization" (80). 

Then again, you could think positive in terms that crime can and does create jobs:

"All booming industries create jobs, and the Spilotro operation was no exception. Within a year Spilotro was providing work not just for his own crew but for dozens of law enforcement officers who tailed him, bugged him, and attempted to ensnare him in elaborate stings" (148). 

In the end, just about everybody stole. Carl Thomas, another character in the book, puts it like this:

"He spoke philosophically about how the men you trust to steal for you are bound to steal something for themselves" (265). 

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This book qualifies for the following 2016 Reading Challenges:

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