In the years after World War II, when Russell Shorto’s grandfather was an important member of the Johnstown, Pennsylvania branch of the Mafia; it was a bustling town of 80,000 people. Far different from the barely breathing Johnstown of today, its population reduced by three-quarters, its mills and mines long gone cold and dark.
But, Hell, the Johnstown of the 1950s isn’t just a different little city from today’s, it’s part of a different world, one in which organized crime has changed its game. After all, the Mob’s been displaced from some of its traditional trades, gambling’s been taken over by licensed casinos, state lotteries and off-track betting. Effective Shylocking is now in the hands of chains of predatory lending stores and fast-shuffling bankers. Conmen today sell not only underwater real estate but underwater financial instruments.
No wonder Shorto is sometimes sentimental about the way things used to be, but mostly his flat-terrific book Smalltime takes a very unsentimental look at his direct forebears, at how his grandfather and namesake became a local crime boss’ number two and how and why his father Tony Shorto didn’t. But Smalltime examines the Johnstown beyond the expansive Shorto family and its connections to the crime families of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, as well as the conflicts within his own Shorto family nucleus.
Smalltime is a fine book from a guy who is a distinguished and professional writer of volumes devoted to places and times far from his own. Investigative history and ordering narration have been Russell Shorto’s hallmarks, but Smalltime turns his investigative techniques to his own family history and uncovers a narrative of disorder, deception and lots of irresolvable ambiguity.
Russell Shorto is the author of the new book Smalltime, an investigative family memoir. He has been a best-selling author of The Island at the Center of the World, Amsterdam and Revolution Song and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.