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Glamorizes a despicable life
on November 3, 2011
I ordered this book after hearing authors Wright and Riccobono interviewed on NPR. This is the autobiography of a mean spirited, cruel and angry individual, raised to be a criminal and well suited to that path. Jon Riccobono took satisfaction in causing suffering to numbers of people throughout a long criminal career, breaking arms and shooting kneecaps, armed robbery, destroying lives, businesses, families, cooperating with some of the worst criminal gangs in the world, and murdering in this country and Vietnam. He took a special interest in beating, robbing and shooting college kids whom he hated for their higher social status. His victims number in the hundreds. Even his wife says his influence is "based on evil." Riccobono has a long run as a successful criminal, seems not to pull punches in rendering his story, and Evan Wright's writing is precise. Is it a compelling read? Yes. But I had an increasing sense of discomfort as I went along. This is an 'authorized biography' which gives a sociopath a platform to present, and no doubt color, his own story. While he appears forthright and repentant in some ways, the overall effect is to make him out as something of a folk hero ("from mafia soldier to cocaine cowboy").
Riccobono was trained by his father, a crude mafia hoodlum, to understand that one can commit serious crimes and get away with it. The formative lesson of the boy's life at age 10 was his father showing him this by shooting an innocent man in the head over a parking incident. There were no consequences. Little Jon went on to learn you can control people by pain and fear. He describes the proper use of a baseball bat to inflict maximum damage in a beating. He admits to atrocities against noncombatant civilians in Vietnam, including the torture of VC prisoners by skinning them alive. He makes it clear that he 'enjoyed every minute' of the killing, including women and children. Disgusting. Then on to his 'career' and strong arm tactics used to control the nightclub business in New York. This includes admissions of cold blooded executions. Next phase, a major drug trafficker. Bonded with a Columbian drug supplier by encouraging him to throw an American college girl off a building. Preyed even on his fellow criminals by systematically ratting them out to the cops; once again his own wife was amazed at his coldness. Pleasant fellow. Riccobono is street smart obviously. But his theory that 'evil is stronger than good' - nonsense. He was just lucky. He belongs in a cage; why he served only a moderate prison term is not completely explained in this book, because he downplays his cooperation with law enforcement for a reduced sentence. Right up there with the Whitey Bulger story and just as nauseating.
The life of a violent predator makes for disturbing reading. Almost as distasteful was to realize why this book was written and what it is trying to do - market an upcoming movie. Author Wright, a reporter for Hustler Magazine with a special interest in the dark side of humankind, is smart enough to know that the public won't go to see a movie whose protagonist has no redeeming appeal. There has aleady been one doc film 'starring' Riccobono, Cocaine Cowboys. So, although the story is presented as a straightforward "in his own words" interview in which Wright tries to position himself as non-judgemental, there is an unmistakeable subtext shaping Riccobono as a dashing Robin Hood or James Bond figure, a champion of the black arts, a cool guy and 'secret government asset.' The only person who puts a doubt in this narrative is Riccobono himself, who in spite of his unrepentent braggadocio does not seem proud of his demonic life. Otherwise he would not be working so hard to turn his own son to a different path. Wright makes some feeble gestures - footnotes, comments - towards displaying journalistic distance but it is not convincing. Rather he seems to give Riccobono a pass, in return for exploiting the entertainment value.
Riccobono is allowed to draw his own portrait. Not surprisingly, he comes across as a colorful rogue, and will no doubt be portrayed that way in the upcoming film. I find this repellent. The same thing is happening with Whitey Bulger, who was more intelligent and strategic than Riccobono, having managed to corrupt the FBI who then assisted him in his murders. Now it seems Bulger is going to be played by leading man Matt Damon in the movie version - tell me that does not imply admiration. And guess who is going to play Riccobono in his movie? Right, Mark Wahlberg, who else? Studio is Paramount, director Peter Berg. I found an article by Evan Wright which reports that, after the Cocaine Cowboys movie came out, Riccobono was introduced to the crowd at a basketball game - he received a big round of applause. How sick. The new movie will be heavily advertised. Should we expect promotional items? A signature Jon Riccobono baseball bat? Will he appear on Ophra? Maybe evil isn't so bad after all if we can all make a few bucks from it?
What it comes down to is this. In order to enjoy Riccobono's adventures, one must not think too much about his victims, so the book downplays them. But the Riccobono's of the world do have victims, real people who suffered real and permanent harm, and it wasn't so long ago. I wonder how his living victims - the innocent college girl he shot in the leg during a drug ripoff, crippling her for life, the families in Vietnam whose children were murdered for sport, the ex-girlfriend he tied up and severely abused after she left him, the thousands of Americans whose lives were destroyed by cocaine in the 1980's - will enjoy the movie.
Postscript: Riccobono died of cancer in Miami on Dec. 28, 2011.