The teachings of Bill Bonanno: A wise-guy way of knowledge

What is the sound of one hit man pontificating? Ex-mafiosi Bill Bonanno offers up New Age wisdom, made man-style.


Douglas Cruickshank
May 27, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

It's an ancient story, but there's apparently no end to the possibilities for its repackaging: A student of wisdom, a seeker, comes out of the desert (Tucson, Ariz.) to tell his tale to the unenlightened (you and me, especially you). He spins a yarn laced with parable and metaphor, at the center of which is an ethereal, sagacious father figure whose very life is a monument to goodness, a man who has "never lost his ideals, and who by his example and teaching [enables in the seeker] courage, tolerance, strength, and a sense of honor." As our pilgrim -- let's call him Grasshopper, or GH for short -- tells his story, often in lyrical prose, he weaves in the history of his ancestors, their rugged land fraught with turmoil, their struggles, traditions, proud heritage, vision and beliefs.

It's a basic narrative concept that's performed outstandingly in the marketplace over the years, judging by the sales endurance of just two examples: The Bible and Carlos Castaneda's "The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge." Now comes "Bound by Honor: A Mafiosi's Story" by Bill Bonanno (whom we've agreed to call GH).

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First of all, there are three things you should know about our esteemed author-guru:

1) His father, famed gangster Joe Bonanno, now 94, was, GH claims, "the real-life model for Don Corleone in the book and the movie 'The Godfather.'"

2) "I was the model for his son Michael (Corleone)," GH adds. ("But a fiction," our wise guy with the soul of a poet intones, "is only a set of colors, however beautiful, passing over the landscape for a time." Breathe in and think about that for a moment. Now, breathe out and continue.) Grasshopper was also once the acting head of the Bonanno crime family -- before he switched careers to become a New Age author.

3) GH wuvs and idolizes hims daddy, as illustrated by the rhapsodic language of the book's "Acknowledgments" page (see quote in first paragraph).

Oh, and 4) The Mafia and mafiosi are woefully misunderstood. Being a mobster doesn't mean wearing suitcoat-cut leather jackets and shooting people twice in the head. Well, it does mean that, but it also means ... so much more. "Let me be clear as possible," he implores in the introduction. And he then proceeds with an elaborate deconstruction of the Mafia, its meaning and history, that catapults him from mobster to scholar to mystic in a few paragraphs. "Someone who has no affiliation with [the Mafia] whatsoever can be mafiosi just by being who he is." OK, so it's not a bunch of thugs at all, it's more like a self-realization cabal, huh? Right, and what's more, despite those preconceptions you're saddled with, sexism has no place among goodfellas: "A beautiful, proud woman can be said to be mafiosi," Grasshopper reassures us. Nor are your modern mobsters unenlightened species-ists: "One does not even have to be a human being to exhibit mafiosi," GH clarifies. "A horse with a certain bearing, a wolf, a lion can exhibit mafiosi." You mean like Mr. Ed or Flipper might've been made guys? Even Air Bud and Free Willy could be La Cosa Nostranimals? Wow, Grasshopper, tell us more ...

In a promotional interview that the publisher of "Bound by Honor" includes with review copies of the book, GH, in the timeless tradition of the great mystic teachers, informs us that, verily, we must make of ourselves an empty vessel if we are to truly receive the message he carries. Guru-like, he employs dramatic gestures to illustrate his profundities "A visitor came inquiring about my way of life and philosophy," Grasshopper tells his wide-eyed, nameless questioner. "I served him a cup of coffee and continued pouring until it overflowed. 'Why do you continue to pour after the cup is full?' asked my visitor. 'To demonstrate,' I replied, 'that you are like this cup: so full of preconceptions that nothing can go in. I can't tell you about me until you have emptied your cup.'" Fair enough, oh transcendent one, we shall clear our minds, but who the hell's going to clean up this mess? My snow-white toga now has a big mocha spot in the lap.

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But "Bound by Honor" delivers more than the True & Shining Way of the noble mafiosi. Turns out Grasshopper knows who did JFK at Dealey Plaza (I mean really), and in what must go down as one of New Age literature's most winning opening lines, he jump-starts his book with the words "I can see his head coming off." Nice, huh? Simple and indelible; like a rap on the shoulder from a Zen master's bamboo rod, it immediately rids our hung-up, thought-filled brain of any other images, at least momentarily. "It slides backward like a clump of snow," GH continues, "suddenly lifting off the hood of a car traveling at high speed and flying backward." Now, with that sentence he pulls off a trick that Faulkner, or even Edgar Cayce, never mastered -- the use of the word "backward" twice in the same sentence. And to stunning effect, I might add.

Needless to say, "Bound by Honor" is a messy book, as any mobster tome must be, I suppose. There are the continually overflowing coffee cups and clumps of snow that turn out to be airborne, not to mention blood-soaked tops of heads and, well, tomato sauce and worse all over the place. You may want to Scotchguard your clothes before you start reading this one. Better yet, read it nude on a mountain top at sunrise, then cleanse thyself in a natural hot spring. And remember, the white light floods the heavens as the iron tree blooms in the void ... Watch out! You're spilling your coffee! Yeow, that's gotta hurt.

Coming next week: The first volume in the Medellin drug cartel's new 12-step self-actualization and nasal clearance series.


Douglas Cruickshank

Douglas Cruickshank is a senior writer for Salon. For more articles by Cruickshank, visit his archive.

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