Op-Ed: All or Nothing at All

Originally published in City Journal.

“You got good genes.” That’s what an old, self-described “con man” tells Russell Shorto in a nursing home. Shorto’s familial roots and all their intricacies are the subject of his new book, Smalltime: A Story of My Family and the Mob. A distinguished writer of narrative history, including works on Amsterdam and Manhattan, Shorto returns to his Pennsylvania hometown for his latest exploration. The central character is his namesake grandfather, “Russ,” who was once second-in-command in Johnstown’s mob. With the help of his father—and the reminiscences of an aging, local rat pack—Shorto investigates the life of Russ, an elusive and corrosive figure. The result is a riveting and at times moving account of Shorto’s family, Johnstown, and life in postwar America.

Nestled in Cambria County’s Conemaugh Valley, Johnstown is forever associated with a cataclysmic event in 1889, when a burst dam killed thousands. The Johnstown flood, America’s worst natural disaster at that point, was the subject of David McCullough’s first book. But like other small Pennsylvania cities, Johnstown has a lot more to it than one story. Smalltime is about many things, but it stands out as a tribute to this once-vibrant city—with a cast of colorful characters, among them Shorto’s grandfather and Frank Filia, a second cousin. “Growing up in a town like that gave you perspective,” Shorto writes about Filia’s youth in Johnstown. “The whole chain of being, from the bums on the sidewalk to the mayor puffing on a cigar in his office window, was right in front of you.”

Shorto traces Johnstown’s lively past and his family’s place in this miniature metropolis. During the Civil War…

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