Imagine The Sopranos transplanted to the French countryside….
This thrillingly comic, internationally bestselling Mafia farce is the inspiration for the major motion picture The Family starring Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Tommy Lee Jones, and produced by Martin Scorsese.
The Blakes are newcomers to a small town in Normandy. Fred is a historian researching the Allied landings, Maggie enjoys charity work, and their kids are looking forward to meeting other teenagers at the local lycée. Or so it seems.
In fact, Fred is really Giovanni Manzoni, an ex-goodfella turned stool pigeon who’s been relocated from New Jersey to France by the FBI’s witness protection program. He’s got a two-million-dollar bounty on his head, but he and his family can’t help attracting attention (imagine the Sopranos in Normandy). And when imprisoned mobster Don Mimino gets wind of their location, it’s Mafia mayhem à la Josh Bazell’s Beat the Reaper, or like The Godfather as if written by Carl Hiaasen. Because while you can take the man out of the Mafia, you can’t take the Mafia out of the man.
“Maggie, make me some tea!”
Fred had shouted loud enough from the veranda to wake Malavita, who gave a little growl and went straight back to sleep. Maggie heard, too, but felt no sense of urgency, and remained slumped in front of the television screen in the bedroom. Fred, irritated by the lack of response, risked losing the thread of his inspiration, and left the typewriter.
“Didn’t you hear me?”
Lying back on the bed, annoyed by her husband’s intrusion just at the denouement of the soap plot, she paused the cassette.
“Don’t play the macho Italian with me, will you?”
“But . . . I’m working, sweetie . . .”
Maggie had to suppress her irritation at the word “working,” irritation which had been mounting ever since they had arrived in Cholong a month earlier.
“Might we know what it is you’re doing with that typewriter?”
“Don’t fuck with me, Giovanni.”
She only used his real name in extreme situations, either very tense or very tender ones. He was going to have to confess to what he had been doing on the veranda from 10 a.m. onwards, bent over a bakelite antique, and explain to them the full urgency of this project which had filled him with such unusual energy and plunged him into such delicious confusion.
“You can make fools of the neighbours if you like, but please spare me and your kids.”
“I’ve TOLD you, I’m WRITING, for Christ’s sake!”
“You can hardly even read! You couldn’t even write down the things you say! The neighbour at number five told me you were hatching something about the Normandy landings! I had to nod like an idiot . . . The landings? You don’t even know who Eisenhower was!”
“Fuck the landings, Maggie. That was just a pretext. I’m writing something else.”
“Might I know what?”
At that, Maggie realized that all was lost. She had known her husband for ever, and now it seemed he was no longer the man she had known a month ago, the man whose every gesture and intonation she knew by heart, and understood.
And yet Fred wasn’t lying. He had, with no regard for chronology, been going back, as the whim took him, over the happiest period of his life, the thirty years he had spent at the heart of the New York Mafia, and then the most painful – the time when he turned government witness. Captain Thomas Quintiliani had, after tracking him for four years, succeeded in cornering clan boss Giovanni Manzoni, and had forced him to testify at a trial which had brought down three of the biggest gang leaders, the capi who controlled the East Coast. One of them was Don Mimino, capo di tutti i capi, the head of all the “five families” in New York.
There had followed the period of the Witness Protection Programme, “WITSEC,” those stinking arrangements that supposedly protected those who had snitched from reprisals. Reliving the most shameful moments of one’s existence was no doubt the price anyone would have to pay for embarking on the writing of their memoirs. Fred would have to spell out every letter of every forbidden word: snitching, flipping, ratting out on your friends, condemning the oldest of them to sentences ten times their great ages and a thousand times their life expectancy (Don Mimino had copped three hundred and fifty-one years, a number everyone found perplexing, including Quintiliani). Fred would not duck out of it, he would go right to the end of his confession; that was one thing you could count on – he never did anything by halves. In the days when he was in charge of eliminating troublesome types, he would never leave any identifiable pieces lying around; if he was in charge of protection in some particular district, no shopkeeper was allowed to escape his payoff , not even the man selling umbrellas in the street. The hardest part of the story would be reliving the two years spent pre-paring for the trial; it had been a period of total paranoia, when he moved hotels every four days, surrounded by agents, and only saw his children once a month. Up until that famous morning when he had held up his hand before all of America and taken the oath.
Before reaching that point, however, he would re-live gentler memories, rediscover the best part of his life, the happy days of his youth, his first gun, his baptism of fire and his official reception into the brotherhood of Cosa Nostra. The blessed time when it was all in the future, a time when he would have strangled with his bare hands anyone who had suggested that he would one day be a traitor.
"Quintiliani thinks it’s a good idea, being a writer.”
Tom Quintiliani, the old enemy who had nonetheless been responsible for the safety of the Blakes for the last six years, had given him the green light. They knew from experience that anyone living under guard would sooner or later attract the attention of the neighbours. Fred would need to justify some kind of sedentary activity to them.
“I thought it was a good idea, until you actually started doing it, you shit!”
The fact was that the whole neighbourhood now knew that an American writer had come to live amongst them in order to write a great masterpiece about the Normandy landings. Being known as the writer’s wife gave Maggie no pleasure. On the contrary, she felt that Fred’s deception would eventually bring nothing but trouble. Not to mention Belle and Warren who, when filling in their class registration forms, had left blank the space that said “parents’ profession.” They would have greatly preferred to tell their friends and the whole staff that their father was a model-maker, or the European correspondent of an American fishing magazine, anything that wouldn’t arouse any real curiosity. There was no doubt about it – their father’s sudden literary vocation was going to cause complications.
“You might have thought of something more discreet,” Maggie said.
“Like architect? Like in Cagnes? That was your brilliant idea. People kept asking me how to build swimming pools and pizza ovens.”
They had had this conversation a thousand times, and a thousand times they had nearly come to blows. She held Fred responsible, with some justification, for the constant moving, for their inability to settle anywhere. Not content with having exiled them to Europe, Fred had managed to attention as soon as they had arrived in Paris. He had always been used to having wads of cash for everyday spending, and then he had decided that the protection programme wasn’t giving him enough to live decently. There he was, a top-class witness who had put away the top criminals, forced to live like a third-rate bag-carrier. Nevermind. Since Quintiliani refused to increase his allowance, Fred had bought a huge deep freeze on credit, and filled it with luxury items bought with bouncing cheques, which he then resold to the neighbours. (He had managed to pass himself off in the building as a wholesaler in frozen goods who would retail lobsters at ultra-competitive prices.) His little trade had been so unforeseeable, and so unlikely, and so discreetly carried out, that the Feds had only found out about it when the bank started complaining. Tom Quintiliani, the great witness-protection pro, had been able to fend off all threats, head off all possible connections with Mafia circles, and keep the Blake relocation secret, even from some of his own colleagues. He had foreseen every-thing. Except the comings and goings of shellfish in the Saint Fiacre building at 97 Rue Saint Fiacre, Paris 2.
Tom had been hurt by such an odious betrayal of the protection programme. To take such risks when such exceptional measures had been set in place, when he was the only witness ever to have been relocated to Europe – that showed the full extent of Fred’s thoughtlessness and ingratitude. They had had to leave Paris for a small town on the Côte d’Azur. Fred, realizing that it had been a close shave, had finally calmed down.
Three years later, the Blakes had at last managed to blend into the background. In Cagnes, the children had reached their previous scholastic level; Maggie was doing a correspondence course, and Fred was spending his afternoons on the beach, swimming in summer and walking inwinter, alone apart from the distant presence of one of Quintiliani’s agents. During those long hours of solitude, he had mulled over all the stages that had brought him to this point, those twists and turns of fate which would, he thought, have made a good story. In the evenings he sometimes went down to a bar for a game of cards and a pastis with the locals.
Until the fateful day of the pinochle game.
That evening his card partners began talking about their lives, their small worries, but also their small professional successes: a raise, a free cruise, a promotion. They had had a bit to drink, and began to laugh at Fred the American architect’s silence; they started to gently tease him about his apparent idleness – the only things they had seen him build were sandcastles and card houses. Fred had taken all this without flinching, but his silence only encouraged the sarcastic remarks. Late in the evening, pushed to the limits, he had finally cracked. He, Fred, had never had to wait for good marks or raps on the knuckles from his bosses! He had built his own kingdom with his bare hands, and he was the absolute master! He had raised armies! He had made the mighty tremble! And he had loved his life, a life no one could understand, least of all these assholes in this dump of a bar!
After his hurried departure for Normandy, a rumour went round the little quarter of Cagnes-sur-Mer that the American had gone home to get treatment for his nervous troubles.
“Here, Maggie, they’ll leave me in peace. They leave writers in peace.”
At that she left the room, slamming the door, with the firm intention of leaving him in peace until death.
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