July 16, 2015
(++++) MAKING SOMETHING OF IT
Dogfella: How an Abandoned Dog Named Bruno Turned This Mobster’s Life Around. By James Guiliani with Charlie Stella. Da Capo. $24.99.
Stories of dogs that show people how to love are a dime a dozen. Stories showing animals bringing out the best in people are equally common. Stories of bad guys who reform for any one of a variety of reasons – some of which involve animals – are just as frequently told. Yet Dogfella, even though in many ways it differs only minimally from other “redemptive power of animals” books, is unusually effective and unusually affecting. Part of the reason is the authentic-sounding voice of former mob tough guy and longtime drug-and-alcohol addict James Guiliani – coauthor Charlie Stella, who has written crime novels and short stories, presumably helped make sure that Guiliani sounded like himself, for which Stella deserves considerable credit. Another part of the reason the book works so well is that this is so quintessentially a New York story – Guiliani’s life is bound up with Brooklyn and Queens, those less-toney parts of the city known to most non-New Yorkers through the overstated portraits of them in many tough-guy and gangster films. And yet another part of the reason is simply that even though all the clichés of a bad-guy-makes-good story are here, along with all the tear-jerking tales of abused and damaged animals, Dogfella embraces those clichés wholeheartedly, never claiming to be more than the story of a really bad person turned into a really good one after discovering, much to his own surprise, that he loves animals and has a talent for taking care of them.
All the harrowing scenes to be expected in this sort of book are here. Guiliani’s tie-ins to the mob, which keep him employed in construction work despite his addictions, also lead him to Manhattan after September 11, 2001, where he participates in the early work of pulling the city back from the terrorist murders of nearly 3,000 people. Later, Guiliani, by this time a committed animal rescuer, braves monstrous hardships after Superstorm Sandy hammers New York and destroys an uncounted number of animals’ lives along with so many lives and homes of human residents – the story of Guiliani’s attempt to rescue 17 surviving cats from a wrecked home owned by a hoarder is a particularly intense one. And Guiliani has just the sort of supporting cast that a film director would choose for a tale like this: his “Italian hottie” girlfriend, Lena Perrelli, whom he meets on the night he has finally hit bottom and is on the verge of committing suicide, and whose lifelong love of animals eventually proves catching; Dr. Salvatore Pernice, a too-good-to-be-true veterinarian who repeatedly refuses payment for highly expensive treatments and who not only heals the animals Guiliani and Lena rescue but also boards them when the rescuers’ home becomes overstuffed with them; and Bruno, a horribly abused shih tzu left to die outside the office of a disgustingly uncaring veterinarian (the polar opposite of Dr. Pernice), a seven-pound fluffball with a crooked jaw that set improperly after someone broke it, a cancer-riddled little dog whose eventual death goes beyond the heartbreaking into the heartrending while at the same time starting Guiliani on what would eventually become his caring-for-animals calling.
Despite the cinematic perfection of the people in these typecast roles, what makes Dogfella so remarkable is that the story is true: there really is a James Guiliani, really is a Lena Perrelli, really is a Dr. Salvatore Pernice, and the events told in this book really did happen. If they are streamlined or whitewashed in some ways, as in a few details of the time Guiliani spent as a mobster and the two years he was in prison, or if they are overstated in other respects, it scarcely matters. Guiliani’s voice – filled with street-tough talk and plenty of four-letter words – seems highly realistic and very much part of New York. Indeed, the improbability of his story makes it seem all the more genuine, occurring as it does in a city that prides itself on being a place where anything can happen and usually does. To call Dogfella uplifting may be accurate, but in certain ways it misses the point. Yes, the book shows there can be good in bad people; yes, it affirms the extent to which animals’ unselfishness makes them in some ways better and purer than humans, enabling us to reach for our own better nature; yes, it shows for the umpteenth time how man’s inhumanity to man is scarcely a surprise in light of man’s inhumanity to animals. But there is more to Dogfella than this. What Guiliani manages to do here is something truly special. He asserts in the book that “animals are voiceless” and that, for that reason, humans must pay attention to and care for them even though they cannot tell us what they need, what they hope for, what matters to them. But in this Guiliani is wrong – for the core of the book, and its ultimate success and meaningfulness, lie in the fact that animals do have a voice. It is James Guiliani’s.