Saturday, January 06, 2007

Book Review: Not On The Level, Michael V. Maddaloni

About two-thirds of the way into Not On The Level, one of the characters explodes in frustration,
Another example of our tax dollars hard at work. The fucking U.S. attorney wanted the publicity, so he spent about a million bucks trying this case twice. The guy's not on the level and neither is the whole fucking U.S. attorney's office.
These eloquent words illustrate the central message of Michael Maddaloni's second book - institutions function within the framework of rules which individuals seek to bend for personal profit at the expense of the larger good.

Not On The Level is an engrossing coming of age story of a first-generation Italian American who goes on to build a successful career in the US Secret Service and subsequently in the private sector. The story begins at the beginning, as it were, in Philadelphia, with the birth of Joe De Falco, whose father has just died in less than admirable circumstances in World War II. Joe grows up in an extended family with his mother, sister, grand-parents, aunts and uncles.

The first few chapters describe, in some detail, Joe's Catholic upbringing at home and at school. Much of the narrative is given over to documenting the rules and traditions that govern life at home, school and church. Under the veneer of order, normalcy and regularity that elders, teachers and priests dictate, Joe encounters aspects of people's character that don't quite live up to the standards imposed by these institutions - a school official who's a pedophile, a sextant who steals from the church, a boy scout official who molests children, a grand-father who carries on an affair with his second cousin, and an uncle whose actions, while achieving their objectives (well, most of the time), are not exactly illustrations of moral, upstanding behavior.

Ever the bloke with the clever ideas, Uncle Sal is the purveyor of all things street smart. He encourages Joe to play with non-Catholics against the wishes of his mother (Joe's grand-mother) "because there were a lot more of them in the world than there were Catholics, and most of them were decent people"; he tells Joe to mumble pig Latin under his breath if he forgot the Latin responses on his very first day as altar boy; he coaches Joe to learn the answers to the questions on the exams from previous years (rather than preparing from scratch) because the teachers always reused old test papers.

Following high school, Joe decides to join the Marine Corps (when one of Uncle Sal's plans to help Joe make a quick buck and pay for college backfires). One would expect that the Marine Corps, given all the good, clean values it stands for, would be devoid of the kinds of ethical conflicts that are prevalent in, say, politics, but no. Drill Instructors at the Marine Corps, under pressure to perform and focused on their own career advancement, resort to cheating to improve their success rates.

The story is not much different in the US Secret Service where Joe begins a long career, in the US Attorney's Office with whom Joe works closely on his cases, or at the multi-national pharmaceutical company that he later joins as vice-president of security. If the stories of the underhanded, shady goings-on at all these institutions come as a surprise to the reader, then it serves to drive home the author's point - things are not what they seem or how they should be; things are not on the level.

There are a couple of different varieties of conflict that are at play in the story. At one level is the conflict between the interests of the individual and the institution; at another level, it is the tussle between Joe's two paternal uncles, Sal and Tony (an upstanding citizen who strives to keep Joe on the straight and narrow), for influence over the direction in which Joe's life is heading.

The book is most attractive for the endearing portrayal of a large, bustling Italian family and for the fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the Marine Corps and the US Secret Service. Having worked in both the Marine Corps and the Secret Service, Mr. Maddaloni succeeds in painting a realistic, absorbing picture of daily life in these institutions.

Perhaps for the same reason, however, the narrative reads, on occasion, like a report of some activity the author was involved in some time ago. This drawback is magnified because the story is told in first person. Apart from this and a couple of irksome errors (when Sal is referred to as Tony, the protagonist's other uncle, in a few instances), Not On The Level makes for a pleasurable read. This is served, in large part, by well crafted conversations, be it between family members or in the work place, and the warmth and sense of humor with which Mr. Maddaloni sketches his plot and characters.

If you're even the slightest bit curious as to what goes into the making of those people in the dark shades you see hovering around the President, Not On The Level is for you.

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