James Guiliani and Charlie Stella, Dogfella (Da Capo, 2015)
Review by Kate Horsley
When a London TV company proposes making a documentary about the life of James Guiliani, the man who phones him suggests a hook: “From Goodfella to Dogfella. That’s a great story, James. A great human-interest story.” Guiliani laughingly reflects that he hadn’t thought of his life that way, since he wasn’t technically a Goodfella, a made guy. But he’s been a gangster, has spent time in prison, has changed his life of crime and addiction to one of rescuing animals – and “I guess ‘animal fella’ wasn’t as catchy.” Dogfella is a riveting account of an extraordinary life, told by Guiliani in collaboration with Charlie Stella, one of the very best writers of mob fiction, including Charlie Opera (2003) and Johnny Porno (2010 – see crimeculture’s review). Stella is remarkable, Guiliani says, “for finding and writing in my voice like no other”, and the collaboration produces an autobiography that is as absorbing as a good novel, by turns violent, distressing, funny, touching and suspenseful.
We know from the first chapter that a crucial turning point in Guiliani’s life was his rescue of Bruno, an appallingly mistreated, barely alive Shih Tzu. Used to thinking of himself as a tough guy, committed to serving only his own interests, he is taken aback by the intensity of the emotional bond that he suddenly feels: “The fuck is wrong with you?” he says to himself. “It’s a fuckin’ dog.” Much of the autobiography recounts the gradual, often painful process of personal redemption during which Guiliani comes to see that what was “wrong with him” was the heedless self-absorption of his early years. With the help of the love of his life, Lena Perrelli, he commits himself absolutely to rescuing and caring for all animals in need of his help, a mission that takes him from being “a man determined to self-destruct” to being someone who has devoted his life to others – in this case, to the hundreds of animals whose lives can be preserved by “a true Dogfella”.
The animal rescue chapters of Guiliani’s autobiography give us a vivid succession of engrossing stories. The animals themselves all have distinct characters – ranging from a huge (160 pound), nearly intractable Cane Corso called Primo, who becomes a “gentle giant”, to Princess, a tiny Pomeranian who bites anyone who comes near her because of the violent abuse she has suffered, but, loved and trained by Guiliani, becomes his constant companion, carried snugly against his left rib cage wherever he goes (“What can I say, we were a cute couple”). There is drama both in the stories of the animals whose lives hang in the balance and in the extreme circumstances of major disasters like Hurricane Sandy, which brought “horror stories about pets that had died during and after the hurricane,” but also happy endings for the many dogs and cats that were saved.
Alternating with the chapters centering on animal rescue, there is a boisterous, unvarnished account of Guiliani’s earlier years. We follow his misadventures as a school boy – the mischief, truancy and fistfights – and his “premature graduation” into a different sort of education, when he is introduced by Fat George DiBello to the Gotti crew. The late ‘80s saw him acting as an enforcer for New York’s most powerful crime family and, when money “flowed like from a waterfall,” spending it on a serious cocaine addiction, without ever considering the consequences of what he was doing to feed his habit. Not long after John Gotti was convicted, Guiliani tried to step out on his own with a botched hijacking that earned him a two-year prison sentence. Released in 1995, he was soon back to alcohol and drug addiction, but eventually, with the help of Lena, his “selfish act had run its course.” He helps her out as she starts a pet boutique, the Diamond Collar, and in time, battling through countless obstacles, establishes his own highly unorthodox animal-rescue shelter, with rugs and furniture and no locking up – “I’m not opening another prison here. Animals don’t belong in cages.” Patient, determined and wholly dedicated to his new path in life, Guiliani tells a forthright, heartwarming story, fascinating throughout.