Mario Puzo's "The Last Don" is the worst book I couldn't put down in years. Puzo has almost none of the gifts associated with pop writers who have honed their craft. He has some feel for narrative momentum, but almost none for capturing characters' voices. Puzo's style is a hamfisted grandiloquence in which it's nearly impossible to tell what's intentionally humorous from what's clumsy. "Early on [the Don] had been told the famous maxim of American justice, that it was better that a hundred guilty men go free than one innocent man be punished. Struck almost dumb by the beauty of the concept, he had become an ardent patriot."
Puzo wants badly to be accepted as a serious novelist with an insider's understanding of the intersection of corruption and power in American politics and pop culture. But he's squarely in the bloated bestseller school with such odious company as Sidney Sheldon and Harold Robbins. Often he seems to have no experience of what he's writing about; his idea of a surefire Hollywood blockbuster is a feminist version of the life of Messalina. Puzo can be mercilessly on target -- detailing Hollywood's method of "creative" bookkeeping, or writing dialogue that's actually a disguised power negotiation. Unfortunately, he's not good enough to make us understand what's happening while it's taking place and almost always resorts to explaining the dialogue later.
"The Last Don," which is set in the present, refurbishes incidents and characters from "The Godfather," as well as Puzo's one brilliant insight, that the Mafia is the logical expression of the true ruthlessness of capitalism. After Reagan, Bush and the Republican Congress, that's no longer news. Just as Puzo's patriarch, Don Clericuzio, wants to see his family go legit, Puzo returns to the milieu of his greatest success, hoping to finally win acclaim as a serious writer.
Puzo may be terrible, but he ain't dull. He keeps the gaudy story moving with a compelling, unsubtle force. And although I don't expect to see this expounded upon in the upcoming CBS miniseries, his suggestion that -- in these fading days of Italian organized crime -- Hollywood studio bosses have become the true heirs to the Mafia's vulgarity is an amusing, impudent one. That it gets lost among family feuds, hidden heartbreak (Are an autistic daughter and a French clinic that might promise a cure sappy enough for you?) and more cheese than a Little Caesar's special is par for Puzo's course. "It's worse than the soaps," a character bemoans at one point. Oh, baby! Suds could never come close to this fat, juicy meatball.