Wiseguy | Study Guide

Nicholas Pileggi

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Course Hero. "Wiseguy Study Guide." June 23, 2017. Accessed April 21, 2018. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Wiseguy/.

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Course Hero, "Wiseguy Study Guide," June 23, 2017, accessed April 21, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Wiseguy/.

Wiseguy | Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

Henry Hill's introduction to life in the mob is almost by accident. In 1955 at 11 years old, he applies for a job at a cabstand in Brooklyn, across the street from where he lives. He has long been fascinated by the kinds of wealthy, important people he sees getting in and out of the cars there. The well-dressed men never get parking tickets, and in the winter the snowplow clears the snow there before anywhere else in the neighborhood. Hill's father is delighted he is applying for a job, believing working at a young age instills the value of money. Hill's mother Carmela is also pleased when she learns the Varios—the family who own the cabstand—come from the same part of Sicily where she was born.

After a few months, however, his parents begin to realize Hill's new job is a full-time compulsion for him. He hangs out there morning and night and stops doing his homework and playing with neighborhood kids his own age. In reality Hill has stopped going to school and is running bets. The cabstand is more than just a dispatch center—it is a gathering place for bookies and the "unofficial headquarters" for Paul Vario, who belongs to one of the city's five organized-crime families. Vario has been in and out of jail since he was 11 years old, but as he became more powerful the charges against him cease to stick.

Hill begins running Vario's errands for him, and Vario tells everyone Hill is a cousin. He advises Hill to never put his name on anything, and Hill gets good at intuiting what Vario needs from him before he even asks. Vario controls nearly all the illegal gambling, loan-sharking, and extortion in the area, and also owns several businesses. His four brothers also operate various businesses and organized-crime arrangements. The families invite Hill into their homes for dinner, and Hill feels he has found his real family. He dreams of being a gangster because to him, it means having power. He also experiences the perks of respect and intimidation—he doesn't have to wait in line at the bakery, and people begin to help his family for no apparent reason. Hill is an ideal worker in Vario's brother Vito's opinion, because he is quick and smart, and soon Vito teaches him how to drive and park the cabs and limousines.

Analysis

Chapter 1 establishes the role of Hill's childhood and environment as the influences that shape his decisions to become a wiseguy as he grows up. Pileggi poses an implicit question of how much nature or nurture plays a role in Hill's fascination with the men who run the cabstand across the street—he is immediately fascinated by their status and wealth as a young boy, perhaps in reaction to the chaos of his homelife with a working-class father and a chronically ill sibling. For Hill, "the sight of all that wealth, and power, and girth was intoxicating." Pileggi also introduces the reader to Hill's observant qualities that will help carry him through his career as a wiseguy—he notices the men at the cabstand never have to pay parking tickets and they seem to enjoy other favors not bestowed to their neighbors. This observant quality in Hill is what eventually makes him good at his various heists and organized-crime schemes: he's a good reader of people and situations, and this is also what makes him a good subject for Pileggi's exposé.

Hill's mother's delight the Varios come from the same part of Sicily as she highlights the close, insulated environment the Italian American neighborhoods had in New York and establishes the importance of those bonds in wiseguy relationships. Hill soon shows his ability to lie, cheat, and deceive when he fools his parents into believing he is still attending school, which is yet another skill that will aid him in his organized-crime career. He has no problem lying and even seems to enjoy it, which is a common motif among wiseguys—they steal for the joy of knowing they can get away with it, not because they actually need the money.

Paul Vario is a father figure to Hill and stands in stark contrast to his own father; given Vario's history of getting in trouble from a young age, he seems to see something of himself in Hill as well. Hill is able to use his excellent observation skills to gain Vario's respect and approval. Vario's introduction in the book also highlights the hierarchy and layers of protection wiseguys are able to benefit from as they climb through the ranks, as Vario seems virtually untouchable. It's clear Hill finds a sense of family in kinship with the Varios he feels is missing from his own family, and for the first time he is also able to articulate and envision his future goals to be just like them.

Hill recollects "being a wiseguy was better than being president of the United States. It meant power among people who had no power." This recollection is revealing of how the class dynamics worked in poor, insular Italian American neighborhoods, where getting ahead on a regular paycheck seemed insurmountable. For Hill, it's a way out of the life that seems to make his father stressed and miserable.

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