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Held Captive in a World of Sicilian Mafiosos and Cancer - an Editorial Review of "The Last Ziti"

Updated: Aug 26, 2022

Book Blurb:

1984 was a tough year for San Diego. The mayor was in big trouble; hundreds of high school kids were busted for drugs; a man entered a fast food restaurant and killed everyone; women were found dead on the highway; and somehow Gene was a part of it all. 2002 was a tough year for me. I was diagnosed with brain cancer; had surgery and chemotherapy; forgot how to walk; and somehow Gene was a part of it too.

M. Louis Caiazzo, author of The Last Ziti, is a cancer survivor with a story and now might be a safe time to tell it. Based on true events, The Last Ziti takes the reader on a journey into the underbelly of international drug smuggling, insurance scams, serial killers, and mafia hits.

Book Buy Link:

Author Bio:

Born Michael Louis Caiazzo to father Louis and mother Florence.

Attended San Diego State University (SDSU) and became a charter / founding member of the Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity.

Married college sweetheart, Janet.

2002 - A large b-Cell Type Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma detected and removed. Much of 2002 spent at the Kaiser Permanente San Diego Medical Center. Met "Gene Salvatore".

Editorial Review:

''It is an Ancient Mariner

And he stoppeth one in three

By thy long beard and glittering eye

Now wherefore stopp'st thou me?

He holds him with his glittering eye-

The Wedding Guest stood still,

And listens like a three year's child:

The Mariner hath his will.

['The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Coleridge Taylor]

There are many instances in literature of a person like the 'Wedding Guest' in Samuel Coleridge Taylor's 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner', of people held in thrall by an account of another person's story or episodes of it. Often they are held captive by pure fascination or terror or by the physical situation they are placed in. With Mike Caiazzo it is both of these things. This book is a very fine example of the employment of this literary device; though in this instance the events are based on a true and terrifying story.

Mike Caiazzo is a young man aged twenty-seven and of Sicilian heritage. We understand that he is reasonably prosperous, newly married, and with a close and loving family. Mike is a fine example of a young man with everything to live for and with his whole life ahead of him. He is, however, in a room in a private Californian Hospital and surrounded by - indeed trapped by - medical equipment. He has been struck down by a severe brain tumour and is frightened, alone, and in severe pain. As the narrative progresses and as his own medication for the pain is increased, his own state of mind becomes increasingly chaotic and confused and there is an ever-growing nightmare and befuddled quality to his life and the readers perhaps find themselves left confused and more than a little ill at ease. Here is the writer's description of Mike's condition at one stage:

''After a few minutes, I felt like I was on a sailboat in rough waters. My balance was unsteady, I was dizzy and I felt I shut my eyes tight. I couldn't hear her [the nurse] come in. I didn't feel her at all, but I knew she had been there after a few minutes. A wave came over me, and my pain was gone.''

Mike has with him his own mysterious companion, his own 'Ancient Mariner' dressed in a hospital gown. The man doesn't appear to be sick and he is oddly familiar. This man continues to appear, disappear, and reappear once more as Mike lies half drugged and in great pain and during various phases in his rapidly deteriorating condition. This is the mysterious and enigmatic Gene and readers may be forgiven for assuming in the first instance that he is just a figment of Mike's fevered and drug-addled imagination. He certainly more than holds Mike's interest, an interest which soon passes into fascination and then obsession with the story he has to tell. And what a story it is! It is, apart from being a sobering view of the underbelly of American crime, a disturbing blend of Dante's descent into Hell in The Inferno and some of the more outlandish of the adventures in Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas - and this is no exaggeration. For 'Gene', it turns out, is a card-carrying hood.

The reader is supplied only with the most minimal of physical descriptions of Gene. We learn, for example, of the very visible scars on his forehead. We learn also that, like Mike, he is of Italian ancestry, but very little besides. As the book develops, the bond between the two men grows palpably ever stronger. Gene encourages Mike and treats him with a rough and ready kindness, urging him to attempt to take some form of control over his condition and to 'fight back'. He is also greatly angered when Mike uses such vocabulary as 'wise guy', 'good fella' and 'Mafioso' to describe him. He is certainly no Californian and seems very out of place. He is certainly no 'fruit and nut' [Gene's general definition of all Californians] and he appears also to have had a very typical introduction to a life of crime very similar to a screenplay of ''Goodfellas' or 'The Sopranos'. From the start, Mike finds him a soothing and a comforting presence, and Mike is fascinated with his story - which unfurls in 'episodes' rather like a serial. At face value, Gene's life of crime seems a classic type of apprenticeship. Wherever 'home' might be, he begins running messages and then acting as lookout for the Cops before graduating to driving and auto theft.

Gene provides no information as to how long it takes him to rise through the ranks in his particular criminal hierarchy, but his story begins in the early 1980s, some twenty years before. At this point, he is running his own 'crew', each very much an eccentric individualist and each a specialist in some aspect of the dark arts of organised crime. Gene is a 'soldier' and his own immediate superior - his ''Capo' - is a man called 'Big John', who subsequently mysteriously disappears without trace. Within 'the family' are two other 'Capos' - the sinister and dangerous Canaglio brothers, 'Jelly' and 'SiSi'. They in turn report to a 'Council' headed up by Nick Nicodemo and Joe 'the Priest', the 'Consigliere' and in overall command of the 'rackets'. 'The family', for the most part, feels obliged to adhere to a strict code of rules and regulations:

''It's hard for guys like us to play by rules. In the first place, we were a rowdy bunch. Many had a gambling mentality, plus the rush of winning is strong with men like us. The dangers of losing were always there, but that feeling was overshadowed by winning. We knew that if we got caught dealing drugs, the legal penalty was damn brutal, but the rush of winning was great. When guys went against the rules, that's when the shit started to go downhill. The bosses would never turn drug money away, but sure as hell talked like they did.....''

Gene has a responsibility to his 'crew' and a type of avuncular interest in their welfare. He is their mentor and organiser [Mike jokingly refers to him as a 'middle manager'] and a huge problem facing him is what to do with a particular protege of his: a troublesome youth called Thomas Figiola - 'Tommy Figgs'. It is this violent young psychopath who lies at the heart of Gene's subsequent Odyssey through the badlands of American crime, a journey that features mass shootings, a murder spree of assumed prostitutes and young girls, a mass shooting at a popular restaurant, and a large scale operation smuggling drugs out of Mexico and into California and beyond. Tommy Figgs is bad news and he is the Cross that Gene feels obliged to bear. As he tells Mike:

''Thomas Figiola, he was like a little brother to me. I remember a tough kid, but it wasn't his fault. He came from a shitty drunk father and a mean drunk mother. He had nothing at home.....just a lonely kid from a couple of barflies......Still, he knew he was a piece of shit and that he came from two pieces of shit, so that's what he had to live up to. What he lacked at home he more than made up for on the streets. The kid owned the streets from early on.....''

Most certainly Tommy is a problem and bad news. His biggest skill is street fighting, and he is very good and very adept at it. Mike jokingly describes him as 'an Italian ninja'. The catalyst is brought about by Tommy beating a man to an absolute jelly outside a joint owned by Jelly Canaglio. This can only bring heat down on him from the Cops. Jelly snaps and makes an ultimate mafia-style pronouncement:

''Tommy is a no-good mooch, just like his old man, and I want him gone. Like today, not tomorrow, and not next week - today. That is a tree that will not bear fruit.''

This is, of course, a clear sentence of death and Gene decides that it is time for he and Tommy to take a little road trip for the sake of his health - to Saint Diego by way of a stop off at a prison in central Texas, where Gene hopes to be given a clear set of instructions as to how to make his fortune - and more besides - in the golden state of California. Gene's crew are primed and instructed how to behave in his absence and the two set off. Tommy is nothing but bad news from the start and his behaviour rapidly and spectacularly deteriorates to the extent that it becomes a full-time job for two minders to keep him out of trouble. He is, to state a cliche, his own worse enemy. For his part, Mike is increasingly beset by problems of his disease and the medical equipment he is encumbered with. Free movement is next to impossible and the effects of his illness add an increasingly fragmented nature to the story. But, in his own episodic fashion, Gene always returns to continue with his truly jaw-dropping narrative. By 1984, Gene is making his early connections within the drug scene in San Diego amongst the hippie 'Stoners' and early trips south of the border to 'T.J.' - Tijuana. This reviewer has absolutely no intention whatsoever of removing the tension by relating a chronology of astounding incidents involving, as they do, such characters as low-life Californian bikers, Mexican 'luchardo' wrestlers handling speedboats piled high with marijuana, and ever-increasing loads of crystal meth, sinister low-dives and ever more unsavoury personalities including the 'Devil Incarnate'', a truly evil man called 'the Spanish' - 'Satan wanting to bring Hell on earth. ''The Spanish' subjects Gene to a truly 'Temptation of Christ'-like experience, showing him a wonderful luxurious villa and a physical 'heaven on earth' that could be his if he agrees to his plans. Even the hardened Gene begins to entertain moral doubts at the increasing amount of crystal meth flooding into the States:

''Seeing where my money came from was horrible, Mike. Its like going to the slaughterhouse before you eat a steak.....I was in a tough spot. The decisions I was making now would eventually lead me to a horrible end.''

Gene and Tommy have by now been some time away from home. While Gene continues to labour to send large amounts of money home to 'The Family', Tommy sinks even lower in behaviour and depravity and into melancholic self-pity:

''You are talking like these Californians already Gene. You know how many nights I spent alone? You know what it's like to be alone for days at a time, only wanting to see your Mom and Dad? Hungry, cold, alone - crying your eyes out to just once see your Mom and dad not angry at you. Angry at the world 'cause some drunk asshole gave her a worthless kid like me? and that dad of mine.......her drinking buddy.... never even looked at me for more than a few seconds. All I wanted was for them, just to look at that I was even alive. I would spend nights sitting on my window sill looking at the guys on the corner, wanting to have a family......''

There is a lot more in this vein and when Tommy makes a terrible confession and reveals an equally appalling secret, he is by now a physical and emotional wreck through crystal meth addiction. Tommy is a lost cause who leaves nothing but death and destruction in his wake and Gene is justifiably nervous at what he might find when he returns to his familiar streets. He loads Tommy into his automobile and makes the long journey home. We never learn what finally becomes of Tommy and Gene's own immediate future is also extremely uncertain. By now, Mike's own health has gone into a spiral. Mike's last real conversation with and memory of Gene is on the subject of Italian cooking and of Mike's rather boastful pride in his ability in making baked ziti. When he finally recovers consciousness he has had major surgery and he is in his parent's bed and reunited with his wife and loving family. There is, of course, no sign of Gene. It will prove to be a very long and laborious road to recovery. As Mike admits wryly: ''I'm like an Italian car, looks great, but maintenance is a bitch.''

'The Last Ziti' has proved to be a long and difficult journey for the reader. Occasionally incoherent, it is nonetheless a narrative tinged with a nightmarish and ominous quality and full of foreboding; both for Mike and for Gene. It is quite possibly an account of the worst road trip that anyone is likely to read but it is an account that is eminently well worth the reading. The author is to be congratulated on this book.


“The Last Ziti” by Michael Caiazzo receives five stars and the “Highly Recommended” award of excellence from The Historical Fiction Company



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