I’m no fan of skipping to the end of books – as a writer I appreciate the intended structure that a work’s creator has built and respect their process. But in a way, the most important passage of Joseph N. Gagliano’s candid, musing “No Grey Areas” is on the 202nd of the memoir’s 204 pages – it’s when Gagliano, a futures trader turned college sports gambling ring masternind, details each of the bad decisions he made that led him from a close-knit Chicago family to two separate stints in Federal prison.
He’s humorously honest throughout the book about times that he should have known better – “I was arrogant, young and stupid; simple as that” – Gagliano writes early on. But there’s something satisfying in this age of proudly conspicuous consumption, of “I got mines!” with no concern for why it’s so important to have yours, to read the perspective of a guy who both wholeheartedly enjoyed the fruits of his ill-gotten gains, while still accepting responsibility for what he did. Even as he details the acts of the friends, relatives and people he knew he should have steered clear of and didn’t, Gagliano is refreshingly blunt about his own short-comings, his own hubris even in situations where past experience should have been a red flag, of the moral choices in which there is, as his title proclaims, no grey area.
The first half of the book follows Gagliano’s rule-bending from his days fixing the squares on Super Bowl betting squares to agreeing, in his early 20s, to fix first one, then two, then three Arizona State University basketball games. The ensuing point-shaving scandal sent several conspirators, including the author, to Federal prison. The explanation of the scam and how it worked does get very specific and technical, perhaps too much so for readers less familiar with sports gambling, legit and otherwise. But it’s necessary, particularly for its presumed audience, to explain those details, and what part each member of the conspiracy plays, from the masterminds, to the players, to the college kids clumsily cluing in casino staff and the Feds with their haphazard betting. There’s a particularly cinematic passage that follows a latter game, one Gagliano knows he shouldn’t be involved in, and his increasing paranoia and nervousness as, one by one, bets start to get flagged.
It’s not a spoiler alert to acknowledge that he winds up in prison – the book jacket says so – but it’s fascinating watching Gagliano recount the steps he took to get there, even as he admits that he should have known. And because of that, he admits that he should have known better than to be involved in events that eventually wind him up in jail a second time, for even longer, surrounding alleged fraud involving loans he took out for a chain of car washes he owned. Even though he maintains that he didn’t deserve that particular charge, he admits, painstakingly, bad choices he made about how to trust and corners cut.
The third act of the book, one that I won’t give away, is about the consequences of both scandals on his family, his finances and his self-worth, and how an unexpected meeting at the lowest point in his life changed him even as he faced prison one more time. The book is incredibly conversational, written by a guy humbled by the things he should have known and didn’t, as well as the things he knew and pretended he didn’t. So many memoirs and first-person essays are full of self-indulgent whining and blame-heaping, so to read about an adult who accepts all of the parts of his life, especially the things he got wrong, is thrilling. “No Grey Areas” may be a sports book, but it’s also a memoir about greed, faith and about what happens when we pretend that truth and right and wrong are negotiable.