"Smalltime: A Story of My Family and the Mob,"| Reviewed by William Winkler
The scope and influence of organized crime (“The Mob,” “The Mafia”) has waned in present-day America after reaching its peak in the 1950s and 1960s. After its inception in New York in the late 19th century organized crime spread rapidly throughout the country, with crime families established in most major cities. It did not take long for its impact to reach many smaller urban areas as well. Johnstown, Pennsylvania was one of those cities.
Johnstown is the setting for Russell Shorto’s book “Smalltime.” A contributing writer at the “New York Times Magazine,” Shorto’s best known book is “The Island at the Center of the World,” a narrative history of the founding of New Amsterdam, the Dutch colony that became Manhattan.
The seeds for “Smalltime” were planted during a Christmas visit to family in Johnstown when Shorto was approached by a distant, aged cousin and asked if he planned to write about his grandfather, Shorto’s namesake, and his involvement with the mob in the southwestern Pennsylvania city.
Shorto had been vaguely aware of his family’s history but had never investigated it. His father, still living at the time Shorto began his research, had always seemed reticent about discussing the family’s past.
Using a combination of extensive interviews with family members (some of whom had peripheral associations with the mob), aging former mobsters and their descendants, and documentary research, Shorto was able to unearth much of the history of organized crime in his hometown.
He learned distressing details about his grandfather, a notorious philanderer and committed alcoholic. And in the years that he worked with his father in gathering data for the book, Shorto was able to deepen a relationship with a man who, for much of the author’s life, had seemed distant.
“Smalltime” is a well-researched, readable account of the activities of organized crime in small city America. But it also is a story of the author’s reconnection with his past and the deepening of his relationship with his father in their last years together.