Mario Puzo (1920-99) was one of 12 children born in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen to two illiterate Neapolitan immigrants. Puzo graduated from City College, loved the novels of Dostoyevsky and in his 20s began writing stories for pulp magazines. He published two little-noticed novels, and then, in his late 30s, deeply in debt (he gambled) and with a wife and five children, he set out for entirely mercenary reasons to write a novel about the Mafia, an organization about which he knew almost nothing.
I remember reading “The Godfather” when it was published in 1969. Like millions of others, I couldn’t put it down. Puzo had drawn brilliantly on the pulps and Dostoyevsky to create a crime story like no other. His powerful narrative carried violence to shocking new levels (even horses weren’t safe). Most strikingly, in Puzo’s fictional universe, leaders of the Mafia, previously regarded as ignorant, homicidal thugs, were transformed into men of honor, men of respect, American businessmen who were sometimes obliged to do harm to others, although the best of them, such as Puzo’s Don Vito Corleone, deeply regretted that necessity.
Puzo’s good luck held when Paramount reluctantly chose 30-year-old Francis Ford Coppola to direct the movie of “The Godfather” (1972), and he produced not the expected potboiler but an operatic, often brilliant version of the story that was soon ranked, along with “The Godfather Part II” (1974), among the finest films ever made.
This new novel, by veteran writer Ed Falco, is based on a screenplay Puzo left behind when he died. It’s a prequel. We first saw Vito Corleone in his 60s, in the novel and as portrayed by Marlon Brando in the first “Godfather” film, and later as a young man played by Robert De Niro in the second film. “The Family Corleone” fills the gap by showing Vito in his early 40s, starting in 1933. Despite its title, the novel focuses on Vito and his oldest son, Sonny. Son Michael, the saga’s eventual focus, is an innocent 13.
Vito’s gang controls gambling, numbers and protection rackets in the Bronx, but he’s far from his destiny as New York’s boss of bosses. His dream is for his sons to become law-abiding citizens. However, Sonny, at 17, is the leader of a gang of teenage hijackers; his father, somewhat improbably, doesn’t know it. Sonny has also begun his career as a prodigious seducer of women. Soon, Vito must accept Sonny’s determination to join the family business, and father and son become partners in a bloody, steadily escalating war among the city’s various crime families, most of them Italian but one made up of hard-drinking, hotheaded Irishmen who tend to die young.
Falco has captured Puzo’s rich prose style and eye for detail, even as he equals or exceeds Puzo’s extravagant violence with scenes of infanticide and decapitation. Much of it is carried out by Vito’s henchman, Luca Brasi, who is widely regarded as a beast, if not the devil incarnate. Vito is portrayed, meanwhile, as a loving husband and father, even as his genius for strategy and deception enables him to outsmart his rivals and become the unquestioned king of New York’s crime families.
Despite all the gore, if you want to read another installment of the Corleone story, “The Family Corleone” is a solid piece of work. Still, as I read the book, I kept thinking, I’ve seen this movie before.
At least since Homer had Achilles kill all those Trojans, our culture has often glorified our most ferocious instincts. Modern writers and filmmakers turn bloody-minded crusaders into Knights of the Round Table, psychotic gunslingers into heroes of the Old West and rogue cops into Dirty Harry. Puzo added a mythology in which people who would cut your throat for a dime were reborn as misunderstood men of honor. This nonsense suited Hollywood’s desire for profits, the mob’s desire for an enhanced public image and everyone else’s desire for cheap thrills.
But hasn’t the “Godfather” saga run its course? HBO’s “The Sopranos” was closer to where we are today and certainly closer to reality — the mob boss as lovable slob. And even that pretties things up. A thug is a thug is a thug, and we shouldn’t be romanticizing them.
My thinking on this has been colored by the fact that I recently, belatedly, watched all five seasons of the HBO series “The Wire,” 60 hours of astonishing, often heartbreaking drama. Both “The Godfather” movies and “The Wire” offer brilliant writing, acting, casting and direction. The difference is that one story deals in seductive mythology, the other in painful truth. If you want to know what crime is truly like — if you want to know the dark side of urban America — watch “The Wire.” The “Godfather” books and movies are great popular entertainment. “The Wire” is great art.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
THE FAMILY CORLEONE
By Ed Falco
Grand Central. 436 pp. $27.99