Mario Puzo

His saga of a Mafia family is one of the most familiar stories in American culture, and Don Vito Corleone surely keeps company with Huck Finn and Jay Gatsby as one of the most indelible icons of American fiction.


One of the New York tabloids caught the near biblical-sounding line of succession: “The Father of the Godfather Dead at 78.” Mario Puzo may have written a half-dozen other novels and several screenplays, but his 1969 novel “The Godfather” and its film adaptation, which he co-wrote with Francis Ford Coppola, are the works for which he will be long remembered. After initial publication and for many years afterward, “The Godfather’s” familiar black cover with its depiction of a puppeteer’s hand was ubiquitous — the novel sold 21 million copies before the film version appeared. The film, too, was an unprecedented success — it broke box-office records and won several Academy Awards.

Puzo’s epic tale not only made truckloads of money but it also — particularly the film adaptation — garnered critical plaudits; it is routinely listed among the all-time top 10 American movies. An ur-American narrative whose appeal crossed all boundaries, Puzo’s saga of a Mafia family’s inter-generational struggle is probably, pace Huck Finn, the most familiar story in American culture, and Don Vito Corleone surely keeps company with Huck and Jay Gatsby as one of the most indelible icons of American fiction. The first real “blockbuster” book, Puzo’s lurid peek at everyday life in gangland eventually sold tens of millions of copies worldwide and, many argue, changed the dynamics of the publishing business.

That change, with its emphasis on glitzy big-ticket books (Jackie Collins claims Puzo as one of her literary mentors), was not quite the splash Puzo had hoped to make as an author. Although he often admitted he’d written “The Godfather” only for the money, his first two novels — “The Dark Arena” and “The Fortunate Pilgrim” — were earnest literary efforts and, as such, hadn’t earned him much of a living. After he became a fixture on bestseller lists, he would recall those earlier outings with the kind of nostalgia that suggested he’d crossed over from a literary realm and could never return.

Along with other postwar, second-generation immigrants like Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth, Puzo began his writing career with complex aspirations — to tell an autobiographical tale that explored the difficulties and allure of cultural assimilation in America. Born in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, the child of Neopolitan Italians, Puzo drew on his hardscrabble upbringing — his father deserted him and his six siblings when he was 12 — for his second novel, “The Fortunate Pilgrim.” His fictionalized version of his mother, Lucia Santa, is a stern and canny matriarch who negotiates her bicultural world with peasant wisdom and a streetwise eye. In the preface to a recent edition of the novel, Puzo claimed that his mother was the inspiration for Don Corleone. “Whenever the Godfather opened his mouth, in my own mind I heard the voice of my mother,” he said.

Even though the critics appreciated these early books, Puzo found himself broke and blocked as a writer at the age of 45. Figuring he could raise some cash writing a book that collected the many stories he’d heard about organized crime, he dashed off “The Godfather.” “I wished like hell I’d written it better,” he would later say. “I wrote below my gifts in that book.” But the desire to make a quick buck on Mafia sensationalism turned out to be a true devil’s bargain. Read all over the world, the book is regarded as his single achievement, and his regret — how many times must he have rewritten in his mind what he had believed were disposable sentences — must have been keen.

No doubt the millions of dollars he earned soothed his conscience somewhat, but Puzo’s sense of having betrayed his abilities continued to be played out in his writing career. He became a compulsive gambler, blowing much of what he made in Vegas. This set up a cycle that required him to write another commercial blockbuster — more crime, more garish sex — just to keep pace with his losses at the craps tables. The post-”Godfather” novels — “Fools Die,” “The Sicilian,” “The Fourth K” and “The Last Don” — rehash, with wildly varying degrees of skill, the bloody operatics that made him famous. In “The Sicilian” he does it with a deliciously exacting eye for the island’s landscape and history; in “The Last Don,” he’s on automatic pilot, spooling out television-style clichis.

Still, by relying on the gangster story, surely the most worn-out plot in 20th century American books and movies, Puzo did manage to write the master narrative for the genre. The “Godfather” saga — the novel and the first two films (sorry, I just refuse to concede the existence of “Godfather III”) — is the benchmark telling of the American myth of ruthless acquisition. Don Corleone is a fantasy figure for have-nots (not for nothing did Snoop Dogg title one of his albums “The Doggfather”) as well as haves. The Don’s deep sense of serrated grievance makes him an American everyman: “[Don Corleone] had long ago learned that society imposes insults that must be borne, comforted by the knowledge that in this world there comes a time when the most humble of men, if he keeps his eyes open, can take his revenge upon the most powerful.”

In Corleone’s dictatorial yet strangely soothing exercise of absolute power, we find the benevolent monarch who will make the trains run on time, protect us and, best of all, set straight our enemies. Guys in corner offices and guys on corners both trill with delight at the Mafia boss’s ever cagey regard for the world around him. His steely paranoia — “Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer” — makes him the quintessential American realist hero. But Corleone is also a gushy sentimentalist, a papa who weeps for his boys (when he’s not giving them a good smack). In this way, the Don serves as the ultimate patriarch, the strong, loving father you wished you had. Perhaps this explains his story’s global appeal. That, and the cool way people get blown away.

In “The Godfather,” Puzo also rather handily accomplished his goal of depicting the immigrant’s struggle in the New World. Italian-Americans may have chafed at his having capitalized on the unpleasant reality of the Mafia in a way that doubtlessly perpetuated ugly stereotypes — “That’s Mafia style, isn’t it? All olive oil and sweet talk,” says one character — but in a strange way they also embraced the tale. (For years “The Godfather” theme song was a staple at many Italian-American weddings.) The book and film had, at least, made their community visible. And, certainly, the role of the Corleone family as outsiders in a white-bread, straight world sounded a larger theme for many immigrants. In between the guns and the cannoli, Puzo had, in fact, made his story of ethnic isolation and striving accessible to millions of readers.

Even when writing with the meter running, Puzo could unreel the kind of phrasing that slips permanently into the language. If you know only the film adaptations of “The Godfather,” you might be surprised to discover that the novel is nearly word-for-word the same story (except for a weird digression about Sonny’s girlfriend’s gynecological problems). The novel’s talky dialogue was pared down to epigrammatic utterance by Puzo for the movie — “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes” — thus the movie feels more Shakespearean and less like the gritty realist genre effort it was meant to be. The novel’s wise guys don’t appear on the scene like archetypal forces of nature as do their cinematic counterparts. Instead, they act like refugees from a Hemingway novel — ambivalent about the codes by which they’ve chosen to live. (Indeed, Puzo’s first novel, “The Dark Arena,” was set in post-World War II Europe and can be characterized as a sharply done, more sexually knowing update of “The Sun Also Rises.”) Aside from codifying an American myth and gracing it with memorable phraseology — “I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse” — Puzo’s most notable achievement in “The Godfather” may be bringing up the volume on crime’s social dimension, the chitchat of murderous men, and making possible logomaniacal progeny such as “Pulp Fiction.”

Puzo’s last unpublished novel was titled “Omerta” (the Cosa Nostra code of silence). As poet laureate of the Mafia, he was unable to escape telling its highly marketable tales; judging by the endless stream of top-grossing Mafia books and movies, you’d guess that Mafia entertainment far out-grosses the actual criminal enterprise. The siren call of this big money may have led him astray from high-minded art, but it assured him a place of honor in the carnival tent of pop culture. In his famous novel he wrote, “Italians have a little joke, that the world is so hard a man must have two fathers to look after him, and that’s why they have godfathers.” Indeed, Puzo’s iconic creation, Don Corleone, had two fathers — the pulp writer and the serious novelist. Together they made us all a storytelling offer we couldn’t refuse.

Albert Mobilio writes for Harper's and the Village Voice. His last piece for Salon was "To Spank or Not to Spank."

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>