Mario Puzo Puzo, Mario (Vol. 6) - Essay

Puzo, Mario (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Puzo, Mario 1920–

An Italian-American novelist, short story writer, screen-writer, and journalist, Puzo is so strongly identified with his remarkably successful novel The Godfather that two earlier novels, The Dark Arena and The Fortunate Pilgrim, are virtually disregarded, although one critic called them "minor classics," and James B. Hall considered the last-named work "among the best two or three books ever written on American city life."

[The Dark Arena] is Mario Puzo's first novel, standing third in line behind The Godfather, although—as if offering some yardstick by which to judge the earlier effort—its publishers tell us to expect a "a savage climax as vivid and violent as any scene in The Godfather". It is a bit tough on Mr Puzo to have to suffer that kind of condescension and it doesn't help his novel a great deal either. The Dark Arena turns out to be a comfortably average story set in Germany just after the Second World War, with an averagely bitter and obsessed hero whose soft centre is discovered by a winsome and fated Fräulein. As expected, Mr Puzo has allowed himself a large cast-list so that several human dramas can be played out at the same time by dramatic humans of variable and conflicting types: the hustler, the commie, the concentration-camp internee; the compassionate, the broken, the brutal….

With Mr Puzo continually playing to the gods, the narrative assumes a predictability which is seldom shaken. It is rather like listening to a partially remembered story: the details are new, but the drift is tediously familiar, so that when the "savage climax" comes the reader is likely to have experienced a good deal of irritation at the time it took arriving.

"Much Maiming," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1971; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), December 17, 1971, p. 1568.

The Godfather is a projection of the American myth of the Executive and … his Family is a parody of the structure and ethos of the modern corporation. Personal wealth, luxurious ease, power and influence over men, lurk in the background of the Executive ideal to be sure, but these are not at all central to the myth. The Executive is the modern hero of civilization. He is faced with the responsibility for single-handed combat with the powers of the natural world…. Bearing the ultimate and mortal responsibility on behalf of us all entitles the Executive to call upon society at large for privileges, without regard to cost or to the equitable or democratic distribution of resources.

At the heart of the Godfather's ethos is the maxim that brutal killings by one Family, of members of another, are "purely business, nothing personal."… Pleasures and personal satisfactions may be the natural and unavoidable concomitant of business activity, but they are not sought for their own sake or even accepted as "personal" when they come. The grand pleasures of the Executive Suite, so enticing to the eyes of outsiders, are not pleasures to the executive himself. (pp. 211-12)

The virtues attributed to Don Vito, however, do not include the central reason for the veneration accorded him by friend and foe and author alike. The Don's greatness is that he is that ideal executive, so high in the corporate structure that his success is not measured in dollars and cents. The Family is assumed to exist for the purpose of turning a profit, but although we see large sums being spent and invested on the Family's behalf, descriptions of the Family's income is sketchy and their balance sheet is never brought to our attention. The true but unspoken function of the Family's Godfather is to bring salvation, order, meaning, to his people by providing them with a sustaining vision of "how things really are." The Don is an apotheosis of the Executive. He resembles the prophetic Spirit, Christ the Son, and as his title implies, God, the Father. (His martyred first-born bears two appropriate names: Santino and Sonny.) He has the attributes of prophecy, of omnipotence and omniscience, and he embodies the mystic and wonderful ideal of joyful acceptance of painful self-sacrifice and death. (p. 213)

As amateur Freudians are too pleased to announce, slips of tongue and pen, puns and jokes, are revelations of the psyche. In The Godfather, a long joke one might say at the expense of humanity, psychological insights bubble up in discrete events and in the movements of the plot. And Mr. Puzo's book is a work of social and moral analysis in a related way. His insights into the relationship between Mafia life and the myth of the Executive are incomplete, inconsistent, incoherent under scrutiny, and yet not without value. The Godfather satisfies its huge audience for much the same reasons which sustain the traditional literary curriculum and its earnest professors. Although its charge is dilute and sporadic, The Godfather projects a vision of the beauty that is truth, that special truth for which art is only the vehicle. (p. 214)

Lawrence Jay Dessner, "'The Godfather,' The Executive, and Art," in Journal of Popular Culture (copyright © 1972 by Ray B. Browne), Summer, 1972, pp. 211-14.

In The Godfather (1969), Mario Puzo treats violence in a … complex fashion, in part because he is not working in the tradition of heroic adventure which dominates the western and hard-boiled detective genres, but in the more morally ambiguous genre of the gangster saga. Nevertheless, the violent actions in which Michael Corleone becomes progressively involved are presented to us as moral necessities required by the endemic corruption and brutality of a fundamentally unjust society…. Throughout the story, the Corleone family is presented to us in a morally sympathetic light, as basically good and decent people who have had to turn to crime in order to survive and prosper in a corrupt and unjust society. Even the climactic series of assassinations planned by Michael to destroy rival gang leaders and consolidate his own power are presented to us in conjunction with a complex of moral and religious symbols; in the end, Michael Corleone stands out like Shane as a man who has achieved complete self-integration by sacrificing himself to violence for the sake of the peace and prosperity of those he loves and feels responsible for. (p. 528)

John G. Cawelti, in Critical Inquiry (© 1975 by The University of Chicago), March, 1975.