BY NOW, Mario Puzo's two principal fictional characters, Vito Corleone, the Godfather, and his son, Michael Corleone, the deputy Godfather, have achieved an almost mythic status. Fourteen million copies of The Godfather have been sold, two much praised films have been based on it, and there is even a prosperous chain of pizza parlors that carries the name. The Godfather indeed lives.
So what if you combined this particular myth with a couple of other favorites: Robin Hood, for instance, plus a heavy dash of Charlemagne's two favorite knights-errant -- those precursors of male bonding, Roland and Oliver. Well, that's exactly what Puzo has done and what results is a novel about the Godfather trying to rescue Robin Hood.
For the most part, it all takes place in Sicily between 1943 and 1950. The Robin Hood-like protagonist is Turi Guiliano, a teen-age youth forced into a life of banditry by corrupt Sicilian police or carabinieri. Guiliano and his boyhood chum, Aspanu Pisciotta, who will play the cynical Oliver to Guiliano's stalwart Roland, are attempting to smuggle a wheel of blackmarket cheese back to their village when they are stopped by the carabinieri. A shootout takes place, a policeman is killed, Guiliano is wounded, but escapes to a life of crime that is to make him the most notorious, feared and beloved bandit in all of Sicily.
Equipped with the body of a professional athlete, the mind of a cunning field marshal, and the generosity of -- well, a Robin Hood -- this teen-aged brigand recruits a band of merry men that soon rules a large chunk of Sicily. In a somewhat operatic flourish, our hero also tithes half of what he steals to the deserving poor.
All this suspicious activity naturally comes to the attention of the dread Friends of the Friends, as Puzo likes to call the Mafia, or Mob, or whatever passes in Sicily for the ruling criminal syndicate. The head of this outfit is the wicked Don Croce who at first seeks to recruit our young hero, but failing this, turns on him and plots to destroy him.
Interwoven into this melodrama is Michael Corleone who, since 1945, has been languishing in Sicily on the lam from that murder he committed in New York. But through the Godfather's good offices the fix is now in and it is safe for Michael to return home and take up his deputy Godfather chores. But first he must bring the hunted Turi Guiliano out of Sicily and safely to New York. This is a matter of honor, for the American Godfather has given his word.
Well, treachery abounds in Sicily, according to Puzo, and it may well be the national pastime. The conniving by all sides goes on at a great pace with the cunning Guiliano usually one or two steps ahead of his adversaries. There are many, many murders, executions, kidnappings, robberies, and assorted battery. And despite the style that Puzo has employed, which is so limpid it occasionally verges on the simplistic, I kept on reading with thumping heart, growing incredulity, and no little enjoyment.
Still, this is primarily a novel about Sicily and the Sicilians and not about those kinsmen who emigrated to America where they organized crime. Puzo's Sicily is a harsh, violent, dreadfully impoverished land ruled by a hierarchy composed in almost equal parts of church and state, crooks and cops. Although corruption is everywhere, his peasants are almost uniformly proud, relentlessly noble, and I haven't read such artfully stilted dialogue since Hemingway put Robert Jordan up in those Spanish mountains with Maria, Pablo, Pilar, El Viejo and that bunch.
It is quite possible that The Sicilian may appeal to two types of readers. The first are the romantics who like to think that somewhere there really may be a Robin Hood. The second type are the realists who long ago got fed up with Roland after he refused to blow that damned horn of his at Roncesvalles despite Oliver's eminently sensible pleadings.
But it is quite possible that The Sicilian will appeal to both types. I know that it appealed to me.