The Schlockfather

Mario Puzo wasn't ruined by the movies -- he was a crummy writer to begin with.

By Allen Barra

Published July 20, 2000 8:54AM (EDT)

A few years ago drugstore bookracks were filled with "novelizations" of current films, many of them written by good novelists who used pen names -- Julian or Julia Sorrel was a popular nom de plume -- because they didn't want to be associated with trash. The drugstore bookracks are still filled with trash, but now the trashy novelizations are written before the movies come out, by bad writers, like the late Mario Puzo, whose "Omerta" has just been published posthumously. And they even get reviewed in tony magazines and newspapers.

The late Mr. Puzo was neither the first of the novelizationalists -- I believe that term is being coined by me, here and now -- nor the most successful. Harold Robbins or Jacqueline Susann or maybe Grace Metalious, who wrote "Peyton Place," were probably the first, and Michael Crichton or John Grisham would undoubtedly be neck and neck for the most successful.

But Puzo is the only novelizationalist with some kind of literary reputation. Somehow, a myth grew that he was once a serious novelist who turned to writing commercial crap because his early books didn't sell. Or in his famous phrase, "If I'd have known 'The Godfather' would be read by so many people, I'd have written it better."

This is classic self-delusion. Puzo's first two novels, "The Dark Arena" and "The Fortunate Pilgrim," weren't that good. In fact, they weren't as good as "The Godfather," which itself would be unread today if people didn't go to it looking for a deeper relationship with the movie. They won't get it from the book; most of the best lines -- "Leave the gun, take the cannoli" is my personal favorite -- are from the screenplay, and while Puzo took a co-writer credit on it, the abysmal quality of the rest of his books suggests that the good stuff was all Coppola.

Puzo's last novelization is garbage even by the semi-literary standards of "The Godfather," a book that did more than anything else to create a myth of the all-powerful Sicilian-American crime syndicate. The annals of organized crime are dominated by names like Arnold Rothstein, Meyer Lansky, Lepke Buckhalter, Jake "Gurrah" Shapiro, Bugsy Siegel, Arthur Fleggenheimer aka Dutch Schultz, Bo Weinberg and Abner "Longy" Zwillman, but the only Jews in Puzo's book are silent partners in gambling casinos.

Like most Italians, Puzo didn't know anything about organized crime or the Mafia. The actual gangland information in "The Godfather" could be gleaned from "Playboy's Illustrated History of Organized Crime," and at that it had to be twisted out of recognizable shape to fit into a novel. In point of fact, the principal gang wars of the late Prohibition era weren't fought by rival Mafia gangs but by ambitious new American-style Sicilian thugs like Lucky Luciano and Jews like Lansky against the Mafia to eliminate the old "mustache Petes" like Vito Corleone and their cumbersome old-world pretensions. ("They were so honorable," sniffed a lean and hungry Lansky, "that they couldn't even trust each other.")

As late as the 1950s, the inheritors of Luciano's power weren't Sicilians at all, but Calabresi such as Frank Costello and Neapolitans like Vito Genovese. It was Puzo who created the grim fairy tale world of a medieval gangster paradise in Sicily that American hoods, through mystic chords of memory, are drawn back to. (Luigi Barzini chronicled the hilarious consequences of a pathetic Luciano, departed to Italy, trying to lord it over bewildered local "Dons" as if there really was an international Cosa Nostra.)

What Puzo did understand was Italian families, who, like Woody Allen's old Jews, are "like everybody else, just more so." The godfathers' murders, betrayals and bloody tragedies were immediately understood to be a metaphor for Italian family life, especially by Italian-Americans. They, finally, were able to bask in the attention of mainstream America, while secretly enjoying a little thrill from the hint of fear accorded to anyone with an Italian name by the very thought of the Mafia.

Though Puzo doesn't seem to have intended it that way (or at least his subsequent interviews don't indicate such a plan), "The Godfather," with its homage to old-fashioned values, caught fire at precisely the time that America's family traditions were disintegrating. Family, big business, the sin of the drug trade -- "The Godfather," by spectacular coincidence, contained a metaphor for just about anything anyone thought was wrong with America in the early '70s.

As far as analysis of organized crime goes, Puzo's later novels had nowhere to go but up. The problem was that, having shot his bolt on the family thing, he had no new characters to introduce. The characters in "Omerta" and in Puzo's last novel, "The Last Don," are merely "Godfather" clones on steroids. They're sicker, sweeter, nicer, nastier, more vicious and more noble, they commit more gruesome murders, and they have more syllables in their names. Don Benito Craxxi, Don Detauius Bianco, Marcantonio Aprile, Timmona Portella, Astorre Viola -- there's not a Vito or Luca or Fredo or Paulie in the lot. (Puzo seems to have plundered Jacob Burkhardt's studies of the Italian Renaissance for his characters' names.)

The final guy in that list is the nephew of Don Raymonde Aprile, the last great Don, or maybe the last great Don was Astorre's late father -- with so many Last Great Dons floating about it's hard to keep track. Astorre owns a macaroni warehouse and sings at weddings and fox hunts -- until Don Raymonde, retired for more than a year, is assassinated for reasons that aren't apparent (at least to anyone who hasn't read a Puzo novelization).

Astorre's true self then emerges as an Angel of Vengeance. (Rather than "Omerta," meaning "law of silence," a more proper title for the book might have been "Vendetta.") Astorre becomes the Godcousin, protecting the old Don's semi-innocent children (an Army officer, a TV executive and a high-powered female corporate lawyer) and unraveling a conspiracy involving the American Mafia, the FBI, the New York Police Department and a chauvinistic South American drug lord who -- I swear I'm not making this up -- wants to develop nuclear weapons to defend the drug trade. All those puffed-up North and South Americans who think they can outwit Sicilians get their comeuppance, though not through anything as witty as a horse's head in the bed. Puzo seems all out of horses' heads. With this book, he gives us the other end.

"Omerta" reads as if it had been written by Damon Runyon in Esperanto, then translated back into English by Robert Ludlum. It made some sense in "The Godfather" for characters to talk in a stilted way, without the use of contractions -- they were immigrants and children of immigrants who did not wish to convey the impression that they did not have any class. But it does not make sense for the sons and grandsons of the same characters to be talking in the same clunky manner after spending four years at the Wharton School of Business.

Puzo will have a lot to answer for in the afterlife, not the least of which is the all-but-unpardonable crime of making millions of people believe that Frank Sinatra made it only because of the Mafia, as if the mob had to force the American public to accept his greatness. (If my aunt has her way, Puzo will fry for giving the world the impression that Sinatra was an "Italian" singer. Perry Como, Vic Damone, Jerry Vale, Al Martino yes, but can anyone name a single Italian song Frank Sinatra ever recorded?) At the turn of the last century playwrights had a stock character referred to as "stage Irish"; Puzo gave us "movie Italian."

In "The Last Don" a Puzo stand-in, a novelist named Ernest Vail, whines about being "a real writer, I write novels that appeal to the mind. That kind of writing is a very backward technology. Movies are making novels irrelevant." This is silly. Novels are irrelevant only to writers who can't conceive of any purpose for writing them besides selling them to the movies. Puzo's problem wasn't movies, it was his writing. He knew millions would read "Omerta." He should have written it better.

Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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