SOURCE: "Pasta with Gusto," in The New York Times Book Review, January 31, 1965, pp. 36-7.
[In the following review, Boroff offers a favorable assessment of The Fortunate Pilgrim.]
One of the mysteries of literary life in America is why Italian-Americans have contributed so little to it. A people of enormous vitality, Italians in this country have prospered, moved into the middle class, but have produced relatively few novelists, especially vis à vis the Jews and the Irish. This can be explained in part by the fact that Italian immigrants, largely from the impoverished South, were cut off from their own cultural traditions. It may well be, too, that the very cohesiveness of Italian-American life has militated against creativity. Yet with the erosion of the tight, tumultuous Italian family, the Italian-American novel may at last come into its own.
Certainly, Mario Puzo's The Fortunate Pilgrim augurs well for that possibility. The author previously of The Dark Arena, Puzo has written a chronicle of Italian immigrant life which is a small classic. An evocative portrait of almost two decades of immigrant travail in the West 30's of New York, the novel is lifted into literature by its highly charged language, its penetrating insights, and its mixture of tenderness and rage. If it doesn't quite attain the poetic intensity of Henry Roth's brilliant Jewish immigrant novel, Call It Sleep, it is still a considerable achievement.
The leitmotif is provided at the opening when we see Larry Angeluzzi riding his jet black horse "as straight and arrogantly as any Western cowboy" through a canyon formed by two great walls of tenements. The time is 1928, and Larry is a "dummy boy," who on horseback guides the New York Central trains through the streets of New York. But the real frontiersman in this urban jungle is Lucia Santa, mother of Larry and five others, a twice-widowed matriarch, an indomitable shrew when she has to be, a hard-eyed fanatic bent on family preservation. Her first husband dies in an industrial accident; her second husband, a saturnine, haunted man, loses his mind and is locked up until his death. The family is run, with the cunning of the poor, by Lucia Santa and her daughter Octavia, a beautiful girl with a wicked tongue, a taste for books—and her mother's passion for survival.
And survive they do. The oldest son is an insatiable amorist but is yoked to family responsibility even after he becomes a small-time gangster. Octavia gives up her dream of college, becomes a forelady in a garment factory and marries a Jew. (This occasions little distress, for her mother takes a dim view of Italians as husbands.) One son, a gentle, passive boy, dies in an ambiguous accident. Gino, the willful, complicated one, escapes from the family when World War II breaks out. But the family achieves that ultimate fulfillment: breakout from the ghetto and a house on Long Island.
To be sure, the novel has overtones of immigrant schmalz—the Rise of the Goldbergs with pasta. But the reader is spared none of the terrors of immigrant life. "Only the poor can understand the shame of poverty," the author writes, "greater than the shame of the greatest sinner…. To the poor who have been poor for centuries, the nobility of honest toil is a legend. Their virtues lead them to humiliation and shame." There is humor, too, in The Fortunate Pilgrim , the harsh, abrasive laughter of the ghetto, as in the wonderfully robust scene in which a crooked welfare worker tries his blandishments on Octavia and is...
(This entire section contains 732 words.)
rewarded with truckdriver's expletives.
Most impressive is Mario Puzo's ability to summon up the world of the Italian immigrant hitherto so neglected: the tenement kitchen after a dinner, "full of the debris of life … like a battlefield with scorched pots and huge greasy bowls"; the children ferociously occupied with gutter derring-do and petty thefts, inspiring in their parents gloomy visions of the electric chair; the mothers "recalling with gusto their misfortunes through the years," or lashing out at America, "that blasphemous dream," for corrupting their young. It is this, in the end, which is the cry of the novel. America is both triumph and disaster. In the old country, "the dream was to stay alive. No one dreamed further. But in America wilder dreams were possible. Bread and shelter were not enough…. Giving so much, why could it not give everything?"
Mario Puzo 1920–
American novelist, screenwriter, essayist, short story writer, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Puzo's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 6, and 36.
Described by critic R. Z. Sheppard as "the godfather of Mafia fiction," Mario Puzo has built an empire of best-selling fictional tales from the world of organized crime. Puzo's best-known work, The Godfather (1969), the story of an Italian-American crime family, is purported to be the fastest-selling novel in American history. Its success led Puzo to continue in the same vein with the novels The Sicilian and The Last Don and the screenplays The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II, and The Godfather: Part III. Credited with defining the public image of organized crime, The Godfather remains popular thirty years later.
A native of New York City, Puzo was born and raised in an impoverished and predominantly Italian neighborhood known as Hell's Kitchen. His father, an illiterate railroad laborer, abandoned the family when Puzo was twelve, leaving Puzo and his six siblings in the care of their mother, a formidable Italian immigrant who ran the household under strict rules. While developing an affinity for sports and gambling as an adolescent, Puzo also took an early interest in literature, particularly the novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and decided at age sixteen to become a writer. Puzo's opportunity to liberate himself from the economic and social pressures of his upbringing came with the outbreak of the Second World War, upon which he enlisted in the United States Air Force and served in Germany. In 1946 he married Erika Lina Broske (now deceased), with whom he had five children. During the late 1940s and 1950s, Puzo studied literature and writing at Columbia University and the New School for Social Research in New York. His first short story, "The Last Christmas," appeared in American Vanguard in 1950. Five years later he published his first novel, The Dark Arena (1955). In 1963 Puzo left a civil service position with the Army Reserve for employment with Magazine Management as an editor and contributor to various periodicals of adventure stories, book reviews, and short pieces, some of which are collected in The Godfather Papers and Other Writings (1972). Puzo's second novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim (1965), received modest critical praise upon its publication but failed to win fame or fortune for its author. The next year a Putnam editor offered Puzo a sizeable advance for a novel about the Italian underworld, which became the unprecedented best seller The Godfather. At last treated to the material rewards of literary success, Puzo continued to write popular novels about the Mafia including Fools Die (1978), The Sicilian (1984), and The Last Don (1996). In the early 1970s he collaborated with Francis Ford Coppola to produce screenplays for the enormously popular film version of The Godfather (1972) and the sequel The Godfather: Part II (1974), both of which earned Academy Awards for best screenplay. Puzo also coauthored screenplays for other major feature films, including Earthquake (1972), Superman (1978), and Superman II (1981). In the early 1990s Puzo produced a third film with Coppola, The Godfather: Part III (1990), and the novel The Fourth K (1991). Since recovering from a near fatal heart condition and quadruple-bypass surgery in 1991, Puzo has continued to write screenplays and fiction in semi-retirement.
Puzo's depiction of the organized crime subculture is distinguished for its wide popular appeal and compelling insight into power and the dark side of human nature. Puzo's early novels, The Dark Arena and The Fortunate Pilgrim, exhibit the realistic narrative style typical of his later fiction and are considered minor classics of Italian-American literature. The Dark Arena involves an American soldier who returns to occupied Germany after the Second World War. Introducing the theme of violent retribution, Puzo's protagonist murders a black market drug supplier to vent his rage at government bureaucracy, corruption in postwar Europe, and his own failure to secure lifesaving medication for his German girlfriend. In The Fortunate Pilgrim, Puzo relates the experiences of an Italian woman who struggles to surmount poverty and crime in Hell's Kitchen. Though extolling her courage, cunning, and traditional values, Puzo's description of petty criminal activity in the poor Italian-American neighborhood offers ironic justification for the life of crime as an alternate means of achieving the American Dream. The themes of criminal legitimacy and revenge are central to The Godfather, in which Puzo chronicles the ascent of the Corleone Mafia family under the leadership of Don Vito Corleone, a criminal mastermind, and his sons Sonny, Freddie, and Michael. Drawing parallels to American corporate structure, Don Vito's benevolent authority is founded on supreme organizational control, calculated judgment, and swift retaliation against all enemies of the family, including traitors and the incompetent within the clan as well as members of opposing factions. In The Godfather Puzo begins to explore the dubious status of organized crime as a self-sufficient social entity governed by its own hallowed customs and rigid codes of behavior, particularly personal honor and loyalty. With The Sicilian, regarded as a sequel to The Godfather, Puzo revisits the Corleone family saga and the subject of the Mafia. The plot involves Michael Corleone's orders to locate and recruit Salvatore Giuliano, a notorious Robin Hood figure revered by the Sicilian peasantry for his crimes against the aristocracy. Michael's search for Giuliano allows Puzo to relate the troubled political history of Sicily and the Old World origins of the modern American Mafia. Returning again to the inner sanctum of the Mafia in The Last Don, Puzo introduces a new crime family, the Clericuzio, whose aging Don attempts to convert his illegal empire into legitimate businesses. In this novel, more directly than in others, Puzo addresses the conflicting interests of the successful criminal and the American legal system, whose official sanctions jeopardize the hard-won private fortunes of the Mafia family. As in most of Puzo's best-selling fiction, the story is dominated by strong male characters and vivid depictions of treachery, betrayal, and sadistic acts of violence that illustrate the excesses of ambition, wealth, and power beneath the placid surface of mainstream American society. Puzo also penned the best-selling Fools Die (1978), set primarily in Las Vegas during the 1950s and 1960s, and The Fourth K, a fast-paced thriller set in the near future. In Fools Die Puzo examines both the alluring and destructive aspects of power and corruption in the gambling, filmmaking, and publishing industries. He turned to world politics and terrorism in The Fourth K, in which the American president, a descendent of John F. Kennedy, works to defend the United States and himself against violent political extremists.
Puzo received quiet critical praise for The Dark Arena and The Fortunate Pilgrim, the latter of which is highly regarded for its skillful rendering of Italian immigrant values and city life. However, it is The Godfather, along with its book and film sequels, that is by far Puzo's most celebrated literary creation. Though criticized for glamorizing violent crime and reinforcing false ethnic stereotypes of Italian-Americans, the novel's central figure and Puzo's most compelling character, Don Vito Corleone, has become a near mythic figure and a permanent fixture in American popular culture. Interpreted by many as a cynical commentary on the reality of American individualism and the quest for the good life, Puzo's straightforward narrative reveals the indomitable influence of money and the necessity of violence for the survival of the self-made individual. Puzo often relies upon the sensational appeal of sex, drugs, and violence in his best-selling novels. While some critics object to Puzo's unabashed formula for large book sales, others find refreshing honesty and understated artistry in his naturalistic depiction of the Italian-American experience and ironic elevation of the chivalrous gangster.
SOURCE: "One Man's Family," in Time, March 14, 1969, pp. 103-4.
[In the following review, the critic provides a generally favorable review of The Godfather.]
Although the last word on this robust, casually served novel about the Mafia should come from the voluble Joe Valachi, the moral will be evident to a jaywalker: The Family That Preys Together Stays Together.
A corollary lesson is that crime pays—or, to quote Mario Puzo quoting Honoré de Balzac: "Behind every great fortune there is a crime." When Puzo gets around to updating Balzac's ever so slight overstatement, he has the youngest and smartest son of the oldest and smartest New York Mafia boss tell his lank Yankee bride: "In my history course at Dartmouth we did some background on all the Presidents and they had fathers and grandfathers who were lucky they didn't get hanged."
As usual, after money and power are secured, the name of the game is respectability and status. The Godfather, which advances and contracts suggest should earn its author at least $500,000 in royalties, paperback and film rights, could prove a subtle opening move in getting the Mafia into the same league as the House of Lords and the German General Staff.
To begin with, Puzo avoids the opera buffa nicknames that newspaper rewrite men use to lend a tint of life to their gangster stories. Secondly, Puzo's Corleone family has manly standards. Gambling, labor extortion, an occasional unavoidable murder and some judicious bribery are all in order. But no prostitution or drugs. These enterprises offend the straitlaced sensibility of the Godfather, Don Vito Corleone.
As a young Sicilian immigrant and hard-working family man in New York's Little Italy, Don Vito discovered (somewhat to his own surprise) he was "a man of force." The phrase is recurrent and a key to understanding the qualities that distinguish a true captain of business and industry. Don Vito is the sort of man who would undoubtedly grump at such academic non sequiturs as "political science," since the years have taught him there is no greater natural advantage in life than having an enemy overestimate one's faults.
Arrayed before Don Vito like vassals at a feudal court are scores of coarse-grained characters who provide the sub- and sub-subplots that enable Puzo to illustrate the broad reach of the Godfather's influence. It is a mark of his power that he commands fierce loyalties because he treats his petitioners with respect—though they range from an obscure paisano seeking revenge for a damaged daughter to a famous Italian-American crooner who needs help to branch out into acting and producing.
Puzo had to do a great deal of inflating to blow his book up to the proportions of a bestselling beach ball. Yet he keeps it spinning brightly—if somewhat unevenly—with a crisp, dramatic narrative style. His professional skill is not surprising. Puzo, 48, learned what keeps a reader turning pages by freelancing and editing adventure magazines. Many of his Mafia anecdotes, he claims, come from his 81-year-old Italian mother. Puzo's own Mafia connections are strictly social. He enjoys frequent jaunts to the Mafia-backed gambling dens in the Bahamas. That he should thus leave some of the royalty money with the very people whom he good-naturedly exploited to get it is the sort of justice that would surely content the Godfather.
The Dark Arena (novel) 1955The Fortunate Pilgrim (novel) 1965The Godfather (novel) 1969The Godfather [with Francis Ford Coppola] (screenplay) 1972The Godfather Papers and Other Confessions (essays) 1972Earthquake [with George Fox] (screenplay) 1974The Godfather: Part II [with Francis Ford Coppola] (screenplay) 1974Inside Las Vegas (nonfiction) 1977Fools Die (novel) 1978Superman [with David Newman, Leslie Newman, and Robert Benton] (screenplay) 1978Superman II [with David Newman and Leslie Newman] (screenplay) 1981The Sicilian (novel) 1984The Godfather: Part III [with Francis Ford Coppola] (screenplay) 1990The Fourth K (novel) 1991Christopher Columbus: The Discovery [with John Briley and Cary Bates] (screenplay) 1992The Last Don (novel) 1996
SOURCE: "Mafia Mia," in Times Literary Supplement, October 13, 1972, p. 1214.
[In the following review, Kingsland approves of Puzo's self-revelatory writings in The Godfather Papers and Other Confessions.]
Mario Puzo rates his bestseller, The Godfather, below his other novels, The Dark Arena (1955) and The Fortunate Pilgrim (1965) and frankly admits that he wrote it primarily to make money. He needed to, being some $20,000 in debt, but once committed to the business of writing he clearly found scope in it for the skill which thirty years' experience of story-telling had given him.
The Godfather Papers contains reprinted and new pieces—articles, stories, reviews, anecdotes, memoirs, diary-entries—all written since 1965 with the exception of Mr. Puzo's first published story (1950). They are understandably uneven in quality, but each has something to add to the portrait of the writer and his world. There is a good deal about Mr. Puzo's passions, the chief of which is writing (and how good it is to find a writer who loves his craft and is proud of it), with gambling pretty high in the scale. There are some of his likes and dislikes, much about early days as a first-generation American Italian, and there is an objective, amusing but in some respects predictable account of the making of both the book and the film of The Godfather.
It is natural to be curious about the author of a work which has given pleasure to millions of people, and this frank, often pungent, miscellany probably gives a better idea than would a more studied autobiography, written when rationalization might have set in and the impressionism of these often fugitive pieces be overlaid.
What emerges is that Mr. Puzo is above all a man who loves stories—the stringing of the George Mandel anecdotes through the present collection is a sign—and who loves even more the act and art of telling them. His imagination functions best when it is engaged in narrative. Nothing could be more indicative of the kind of author he is than the statement he makes about his Mafia book; he confesses that he wrote it "entirely from research. I never met a real honest-to-god gangster. I know the gambling world pretty good, but that's all."
Understandably, one of his early loves in fiction was Rafael Sabatini.
Gardaphe, Fred L. "Legend Fails as Fiction." In his Dagoes Read: Tradition and the Italian/American Writer, pp. 185-6. Toronto: Guernica, 1996.
Mixed review of The Sicilian that praises Puzo's story line but finds shortcomings in his writing.
Gates, David. Review of The Last Don, by Mario Puzo. Newsweek 128, No. 5 (29 July 1996): 72.
Unfavorable review of The Last Don.
Sheppard, R. Z. Review of The Fourth K, by Mario Puzo. Time 137, No. 2 (14 January 1991): 62.
Favorable review of The Fourth K.
Wendling, Ronald C. Review of The Last Don, by Mario Puzo. America 177, No. 1 (5 July 1997): 26.
Favorable review of The Last Don.
Goldberg, Jeffrey. "What Mario Puzo Knows." New York 29, No. 29 (29 July 1996): 38-40.
Puzo comments on his literary career and the publication of The Last Don.
SOURCE: "Mario Puzo," in The Italian-American Novel: A Document of the Interaction of Two Cultures, Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1974, pp. 336-68.
[In the following excerpt, Green examines the major themes of The Godfather and discusses Puzo's contribution to Italian-American literature.]
For the average reader, the Italian-American novel has arrived with Mario Puzo. His books definitely and dramatically document the thesis that the Italian-American novelist has identified himself with what has been professionally and socially inimical to him, the national American culture. Meanwhile, the erstwhile hostile environment has finally accepted and absorbed him. Puzo demonstrates some violent dynamics of this contemporary Italian-Americanism in three books: The Dark Arena (1953); The Fortunate Pilgrim (1964); and The Godfather (1969).
Despite, or perhaps because of, contemporary America's psychic obsessions, Puzo's novels have achieved recognition, since he deals aggressively with areas of Italian-American experience to which the mass media have given national notoriety. Although racism has obstructed each successive immigrant group as it moved upward to economic stability, the Italians, especially, have had to confront not only a language barrier, but the increased efficiency with which communications operate with propaganda. With the historical national tradition of piratical enterprise in the accruement of wealth now stabilized before them, the Italians in America have been able to share in the formidable economic structure, often at the price of being labeled associates of organized crime. Furthermore, they have felt that the pejorative genocidal stamp on the image of the Italian in fictional treatments in books, periodicals, newspapers, and in broadcasting has continued to be unopposed. Much has been written to document this phenomenon, but it is sufficient to note that there is evidence in the Italian-American Press that this negative propaganda was able to continue without challenge, ironically because of the very human characteristics with which the immigrants clustered, obeyed the laws, and formed no united protest groups beyond their own society. Meanwhile, they became convenient scapegoats as criminal stereotypes for the writers of fiction.
Because of the recent widespread and organized violence in the nation, the reading public responds instantly to works that reflect this criminal aspect of society. Furthermore, the distributors of reading material are not always concerned with the possibility that criminality may be only a fractional aberration from the normal behavior of the members of a minority whose own literary output, reflecting genuine predominant characteristics, goes systematically out of print. Ironically, however, Mario Puzo's protagonists command both our respect and sympathy, stirring us with a wistful desire that genius be put to better use. Such talent should handle the more extended human affairs within our national complex.
Puzo has gathered his materials from authentic sources. A native of New York City, he was educated at the City College of New York, Columbia University, and the New School for Social Research. He lives in Bayshore, Long Island, with his wife and five children. Although his first two books were praised by the critics, he had to continue to write literary reviews until he composed The Godfather, which became the fastest-selling book in American literary history.
The history of the United States has recorded the rise of the Robber Barons in the nineteenth century. In fiction, writers like William Dean Howells and Theodore Dreiser differed in their presentation of the moguls of American enterprise. In the twentieth century, fired by legends and reports of unprecedented rags-to-riches achievements, immigrants followed the dream of easy success in America. Therefore, exploring the methods by which to make use of the opportunity here, the newcomers gradually developed forms of organized effort to help themselves. In time entrepreneurs arrived, marking the succession of ethnic groups: the Germans, the Scandinavians, the Irish, the Italians, the Jews, the Slavs, the mobilized Blacks. As each group in turn became assimilated, its members occasionally fortified themselves with dynastic policies in politics in order to rally, solidify, and perpetuate useful working factions in our party system of government. Although this power at times may have been implemented by coercive or even illegal methods, once the power was galvanized it continued to maintain itself by legitimate means while simultaneously intercepting threatening competition by obliterating the competitor, illegally if necessary.
Daniel Bell, in an essay entitled "Crime As an American Way of Life," affirms that crime has been a ladder of upward social mobility from the beginning of our nation's history. He agrees with the frequently asserted statement that many of our great fortunes have been acquired by methodically bribing public officials, padding public contracts, organizing violence, price-fixing, and exercising the despotic generalship attributed to the mid-twentieth-century mobster. It is beyond the province of this discussion to present the available research materials that expose the man who makes his fortune by running contraband goods in one generation in order to leave a legacy that in two or three generations entangles national polícy. The coterie of such a man supplies an abundance of raw material for literature in characters, real or created, who are familiar with the intricate machinery of factional structure and who will use any method to eliminate competition. The frontier skirmishes may appear ruthlessly clannish or brutally combative. When the nation was reading about the "changing of the guard," as it is sometimes called, in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in Chicago, for instance, it became dramatically aware of the ethnical character of some local revolutions. A "Bugs" Moran who is overcome by an Al Capone may seem to be a far cry from Nelson over Napoleon, but the contemporary conscience is becoming increasingly cognizant of their sinister similarity.
Crime has convenient and, sometimes, paradoxical definitions. The Nuremberg Trials inaugurated an international controversy that is still raging, over the legality of killing the enemy, which has the sanction of governmental decision, as against the illegality of killing a personal enemy. When conquest by violence is promoted as protective of the nation, it is recognized as patriotic and heroic; when a killing is perpetrated by a self-directed syndicate for the protection of only its own members, it is classified as organized crime. There are increasingly vociferous groups, however, that insist that killing for any purpose is a crime. In any event, the theme of crime continues to fascinate the American reading public. Furthermore, our citizenry responds to violent themes in political terms, seeking constantly to relate them to the functioning government in which politicians must have the means with which to operate. The judgment of whether or not a practice is a crime is confusing to a people who observe, for example, that while gambling as a private enterprise may be classified as syndicated crime, it may be a sanctioned means for a state to raise funds to make its government solvent. Likewise, while extortion is admittedly a criminal activity, there are many taxpayers who consider our national submission to what they term taxation without representation a synonym for a coercion made possible by our fear of governmental bankruptcy. In consequence, personalities in crime and in government have at times become diffused in image.
From the nineteen-twenties to the sixties, the members of the Italian-American Press worked assiduously to demonstrate what they considered the constructive and admirable qualities of a predominantly sober, thrifty, conservative, and self-respecting minority. Newspapers like Il Popolo, Il Progresso, and Il Corriere d'America, along with others of more regional interests, encouraged their readership to cease their defensiveness and to take pride in the wealth of documentation of their historic cultural past. In time, after a long, tenacious campaign to promote the delicate machinery of assimilation in sensitive and critical human areas, a point was reached when even in local politics contestants were careful to avoid hyphenated ethnic terms. Then, suddenly, at the beginning of the sixties, politicians reverted ruthlessly to the exploitation of factions in religious, economic, and ethnic blocs. With this resurgence of factionalism, there emerged militant organizations by which minorities have sought not only to protect themselves, but to promote their welfare within the national structure. Because the Italian-Americans have been predominantly inner-directed as a group, they have not waged wholehearted campaigns in ethnic competitions. Recently, however, as demonstrated by various organizations like the Italian-American Civil Rights League, they have been stirred to unite against what they have termed the unchallenged tendency of the communications media to present factual or fictional stories of crime in almost exclusively Italian ethnic terms. In his essay, "The Mafia and the Web of Kinship," Francis A. J. Ianni writes,
The strict diffusionist approach that sees only Mafia in Italo-American crime syndicates must therefore assume that the concept of Mafia lay dormant among southern Italian immigrants for decades and then suddenly emerged as a model to organize Italo-American involvement in crime. Further, it must assume nothing was happening in the acculturative experience of Italo-Americans that allowed them to find better and already proven models in the native American setting. These assumptions do not bear up under analysis.
Historically, the native American setting has nurtured certain endemic culture-heroes in its literature. In a country whose educational system pervasively offers as one of its several classics of fiction, and sometimes the only one, the anti-establishment and appealing Huckleberry Finn, it is a foregone conclusion that the writers of novels should increasingly deal with an anti-hero. In the 1957 Freshman English first-semester course in a large university in the East, there were listed three books for required reading other than the composition texts: Huckleberry Finn, Tergenev's Fathers and Sons, and The Great Dialogues of Plato. For many students this list comprised the total reading assignment in creative American literature during their college years. Since this vital area of education in the humanities is thus limited, and recently has come to require even less student reading, there is reason to believe that even the quasi-educated reading public may be receptive to a matured Huck Finn and able to identify with the multifaceted and solid attractions of a Don Vito Corleone.
Emerging out of our contemporary disposition, Mario Puzo's The Godfather is more than a controversial book. Phenomenally, it is a work that grips the reader's imagination, becomes one of the fastest-selling novels in literary history, and sets in motion a host of imitators. There are already numerous books dealing with coercive syndicates, and they cover a whole spectrum of treatment, from Jimmy Breslin's farcical The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight to Charles Durbin's brutal Vendetta. Furthermore, there are various "authentic" works exposing the hierarchical structure of "family" syndicates, one of which is Ovid Demaris's Captive City. Coincidentally, the shooting of Joseph Colombo in New York City on June 28, 1971, during the celebration of Italian-American Unity Day, an episode similar to what happens to Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather, has heightened public interest, not only in coercive syndicates, but in the drama of Puzo's novel. This interest has spread to a wide variety of articles in periodicals, from Tom Buckley's "The Mafia Tries a New Tune" in Harper's Magazine (August 1971) to Nicholas Gage's "How Organized Crime Invades the Home" in Good Housekeeping (August 1971).
Tom Buckley makes the point that
the Italian-American syndicates comprise only one layer, which they share, in many parts of the country, with syndicates of other or mixed ethnic derivation, in what is essentially a vertical structure. Without the ready compliance of corrupt police and public officials, such enterprises as bookmaking, policy, loan-sharking, and the importation and distribution of narcotics could not be carried out on a continuing basis, just as without the connivance of corrupt bankers, stock brokers, and realtors, illicit funds could not be transferred into ostensibly legal enterprises.
Buckley also makes the significant observation that Italian-Americans no longer have the brazen, street-wise ghetto youngsters who would profit from such enterprises.
In any event, Mario Puzo, fleshing the skeleton of a contemporary socioeconomic ethnic image, has sculptured an ice-coated snowball and hurled it directly into the face of American duplicity. He definitively explodes Van Wyck Brooks's thesis of the dichotomy of the American literary mind polarized between the overt holiness of Puritan idealism and the covert claptrap of technical materialism. Puzo says: "I was looking to present a myth. That's what real fiction is about. A legend. That's why The Godfather takes place twenty or twenty-five years ago. If I really knew more about it I wouldn't have written so popular a book. To me The Godfather isn't an exposé; it's a romantic novel." He also says that he did not intend the book as a defacement of Italian-Americans. Apparently, in writing this book, Mr. Puzo has aimed to show that the type of syndicate he portrays is one of the only ways in which the Italian-American could survive in the nation. He says that "It's an environmental thing. Certain animals take on a certain coloring over the generations because of the terrain." Puzo brings together the various themes of Italian-American writers—"out-of-place," isolation, fragmentation, recall, frontier necessity, benevolent villainy, polite segregation, not-so-polite confrontation—all the constituents that perpetuate the basic dichotomy of human nature in the struggle between the constructive and the destructive. With great sweep, hurtling pace, and electrifying suspense, he constructs an inimitable story.
Don Vito Corleone, the benevolent under-establishment despot, rules the Sicilian-American "gangster" world from his post of command in Long Island. The "family" mall supplies the opening scene, where, in full swing, all the members are celebrating the wedding of Costanza Corleone and Carlo Rizzi ("half-breed"—half Sicilian, half Italian). During the festivities, the Godfather is approached by an assortment of favor-seekers and petitioners for interviews by members of his own and others' syndicated "families." Puzo immediately sets in motion the plot and subplots that make the novel massive, turbulent, and vibrating with progressive tensions: the starting point is the proposition made by the emissary of the Sallozzo-Barzini family to exchange the Don's political connections for impending profits in the narcotics traffic. Meanwhile we witness the beginning of the Sonny Corleone-Lucy Mancini sexual relationship, the solidification of the positions of the sons in the family, the exposition of the connection to the Don of singer Johnny Fontane, and the Don's briefing of consigliere, Tom Hagen, on the family's strategy. Hagen is a German-American who has been reared in the Corleone family since boyhood.
The narrative begins with the Godfather's refusal to cooperate with the competing families who insist on planning to trade in narcotics. An attempt is made on his life and, based on an authentic incident, a gang war follows. Moving with breathtaking speed, scene follows scene to recreate the smell, sound, and feeling of every conceivable type of brutal murder. Observing the time-honored code of Sicilian tribal customs, hierarchies, and pacts, the Corleone family systematically exterminates its enemies, including its own members who have demonstrated their treachery. In the course of this relentless bloodbath the subplots are developed. Connie Corleone Rizzi is repeatedly beaten brutally by her husband, who is disgruntled at his slow advancement in the family business. Then, one day, as Sonny Corleone is on the way to defend his sister, he is murdered. The Don forbids any reference to this in the future, but it becomes the dramatic device and motive for the outcome of the story. When the Don survives the attempt on his life, his exquisite strategy leads the son Michael, the thoroughly Americanized Dartmouth student in love with the more thoroughly American Yankee Kay Adams, to avenge the father's assault by murdering Sallozzo and the cooperating police officer, Captain McCluskey. The Don's long arm reaches to Sicily, where Michael is harbored until he receives the news of Sonny's death. During his stay in Sicily, Michael, convinced that Kay Adams must know the truth about him and his family, marries the exotic Appolonia, who is soon afterwards killed by a bomb intended for her husband. The Sallozzo-Barzini connection having obviously ferreted out his whereabouts, Michael's reasons for returning home are compounded. Meanwhile, through the legal functioning of Tom Hagen, the Don has held a visibly peaceable hold on his empire, indicating no further ambitions for power, informing everyone that his intentions are to concentrate on investments in Las Vegas. He has set in motion the machinery for insuring the success in Hollywood of his godson, Johnny Fontane, by a gruesome subjugation of producer Jack Woltz. In this detail, Puzo exposes the sadistic mores and opportunism of the success code in the world of entertainment. The progression of events then leads to Las Vegas, where Freddie Corleone is a hotel manager, and where Lucy Mancini has been settled by the Corleone family. Lucy meets and eventually marries Dr. Jules Segal. When Michael Corleone returns, only his father, the astute and perceptive Don, appreciates him as the potential Godfather. Michael, accepting his destiny, assumes the power designated to him by his father, and, following his father's death, immediately executes his father's plan of exterminating all his enemies and emerging as the undisputed Don. He marries Kay Adams, who reluctantly but philosophically accepts the truth about the Corleones. Ironically, this New England Puritan turned Sicilian becomes the new Don's loyal wife, bears him two sons, embraces his ancestral religion and family loyalties, becomes absorbed in his life, and unites with his mother in praying for his soul.
The Godfather is a story dealing with the contemporary strategy of gaining and securing power. While Niccolo di Bernardo Machiavelli wrote a handbook to guide a prince in expediently establishing his forces in a political world of contending monarchies, Mario Puzo has fictionalized the code for the gaining of control over others in the competition of outlawed enterprises. While the prince had to create and promote warfare, mobilizing armies of mercenaries to seize power from vulnerable monarchies, the American gang leader builds an economic empire in which he attains power by personal warfare, the killing of competitors in the contexts of loyalty or treachery. Both contenders must operate in a vacuum, constantly circling in the absence of popularly ratified and enforced law and order. Puzo's theme is that gangsterism in America thrives as the result of the cooperation of elected government agents.
This theme is dramatized by the struggles of the competitive forces in the novel. Amerigo Bonasera, seeking vindication for the assault on his daughter by two young men who go unpunished because of the corruption of the courts, decides "They have made fools of us…. For justice we must go on our knees to Don Corleone." With this statement, Puzo's theme is triggered into action. The Don, responding to the quest, demonstrates that when a man is generous, he must show the generosity to be personal. He asks, "Why did you go to the police? Why didn't you come to me at the beginning of the affair?" Using the strategy of operating from a personal basis, the Don shows that justice is built on the debts incurred through friendship. He emphasizes the hypocrisy of the law, saying that when the judge rules, America rules, and accepting his judgment is approving the ethics of a judge "who sells himself like the worst whore in the streets." The Don knows that the courts are sheltered by higher powers; even the Senator shows him this, since, as Puzo writes, he is one of the great stones in the Don's power structure, and his generous gift at the wedding is a reaffirmation of loyalty. This kind of power is not visible to the uninitiated. Kay Adams, Michael's Yankee sweetheart, sees the Don as a good-hearted and generous business man whose methods are perhaps not exactly constitutional. It is not possible for her to perceive the nuances of the Don's statement as he promises Johnny Fontane the movie role he wants: "I say to you: you shall have it." This kind of disposal power generates from a firm, hierarchical structure with an internal complexity that can only baffle Kay's Anglo-Saxon mind. As Puzo writes, "Between the head of the family, Don Corleone, who dictated policy, and the operating level of men who actually carried out the orders of the Don, there were three layers, or buffers. In that way nothing could be traced to the top. Unless the Consigliere turned traitor." The author assures us that no Consigliere has ever betrayed any of the powerful Sicilian families that have established themselves in America. The consigliere is not only the advisor but also the tactician. For example, it is Tom Hagen's role to call on Jack Woltz, the producer, to inform him that if the interview concerning Johnny Fontane is not a happy one, there could be a labor strike at the movie studio. Hagen has learned the art of negotiation from the Don himself. One never gets angry or makes a threat; rather, one should "reason with people." The art of reasoning is to ignore all insults. Hagen, however, has the courage to express himself when the Don asks his advice, as he does about the Sollozzo proposition to engage in the drug traffic. The lawyer feels that the other "family" will amass so much revenue that they may become a threat, but he cannot convince the Don, who will not negotiate with men who traffic in drugs and sex. The Don's ethics in this matter prove to be a tragic flaw, because his decision tempts defections from his power structure.
Admittedly, there is some ophidian quality about Don Vito Corleone. To the wary reader, however, the Godfather is not a cobra, coiled and ready to spring. He is, rather, more closely related to the serpent in the Garden of Eden, exposing by knowledge the inevitable conclusions. Motivated by a tragic wisdom restricted by circumstances, he functions by disciplined, cold reasoning. Created with what he accepts as a God-invested power, the Don is the knowing agent of a force forbidden to flourish because it operates within a structure fouled by human decadence. He is the archetype of the highly endowed man born into a minority group, who thereby is consigned to limited freedom within pre-established boundaries largely controlled by piratical men. In his exclusive world, the Don reigns as supreme arbiter and benefactor. Puzo demonstrates that many people owe their good fortune in life to the Don and that, on intimate occasions like a wedding, they are free to call him "Godfather." Even the entertainers and service people are his friends. He, in turn, receives everyone—powerful, humble, rich, and poor—with an equal show of warmth. He slights no one; nor is he ever angry with anyone. "He 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 on the most powerful."
With all his humility, the Don has other qualities that contribute to his superiority. At Costanza's wedding, it is Don Vito Corleone who senses that something is amiss between Johnny Fontane and Nino Valenti; it is he, therefore, who plans the ensuing action. Furthermore, he is honest with Fontane, excoriating him for his disruptive behavior. He warns Fontane to be loyal to Nino, because, says the Don, "Friendship is everything. Friendship is more than talent. It is more than government. It is almost the equal of family." Don Corleone's benign philosophy, however, is an outgrowth of his earlier violence. He had won Fontane's first contract by "putting a pistol to the forehead of the band leader and assuring him with the utmost seriousness that either his signature or his brains would rest on the document in exactly one minute." Power by threat of violence has its limitations, however, although the Don's friends do attribute divine power to him. It is not divinity, but ruthlessness that gives the Don such power. When he has Jack Woltz's six-hundred-thousand-dollar horse killed, the shock intimidates the producer. To the Don, this kind of action is the swift implementation of business, but his code has other restrictions. He will not cooperate with the Sollozzo traffic in drugs and prostitution because he is straitlaced in matters of sex. Nor does he approve of flaunting one's power. Of the eight houses in the mall where the various members of the "family" live, the Don occupies the smallest and least ostentatious home. The harmless-looking compound, however, is an impregnable fortress. Between functional violence and practiced humility, the Don operates with sensitive balance and delicate management. He can assure Fontane's Academy Award because "he controls, or controls the people who control, all the labor unions in the industry, all the people or nearly all the people who vote." This power, however, is propelled by his personal qualities: "to be good, you have to be in contention on your own merits. And you Godfather has more brains than Jack Woltz," says Hagen.
Some of this persuasive power is endemic with Sicilian-Americans, as is demonstrated in this book. Whereas the Mafia in Sicily had been a second government, its escapees in America have extorted money from families and storekeepers by threat of physical violence. From the beginning, the Don has observed an adaptation of this historic precedent in his environment on Tenth Avenue, but he does not submit to the criminal Fanucci. In his initiation into a career of violence, Vito Corleone commits himself with a voice that is reasonable and without anger: "It was courteous, as befitted a young man speaking to an older man of Fanucci's eminence." The phrase "I'll reason with him" becomes the warning rattle before a deadly strike, as Puzo describes it, the final opportunity to resolve an affair without bloodshed. With the Fanucci incident, Mrs. Corleone sees her husband change before her eyes; she feels him radiate a dangerous force. Gradually, with the mounting of this force, he punctuates negotiations with a characteristic smile that is chilling because it attempts no menace. As more people turn to members of the Corleone family for help, Vito Corleone becomes their savior; it is he who is able to prevent Mrs. Colombo's losing her home; he manipulates the landlord. Gradually establishing his image as that of a "man of respect," the Don rises in a traditional pattern. In the "olive-oil war," the men who are not amenable to his reasoning find their warehouses burned. None of the Don's fellow-Sicilians breaks the "ten-century-old law of omertà (silence)." All this power might easily remain tribal, but, as Puzo shows, the established government nourishes the powers within and against it. Prohibition rockets Vito Corleone into a star of great power from a quite ordinary, sometimes ruthless businessman to a "great Don" in the world of criminal enterprise. Puzo details the structure of the organization, making a convincing argument that "the Don got the idea that he ran his world far better than his enemies ran the greater world which continually obstructed his path." He overcomes his competitors, solidifies his forces, and by 1941 controls some of the industries of a booming America, which industries included black-market OPA food stamps, gasoline stamps, travel priorities, war contracts, black-market materials for clothing firms, and draft exemptions for the men in his organization.
Having thus established the strength of his organization, the Don constantly exerts his power, even to the most intimate detail, over the personalities of the members within it. Puzo illustrates this point in the relationship between the Don and his son-in-law, Carlo Rizzi. The reader has a terrifying suspicion of the facts behind the Don's ostensible equanimity over Rizzi's connection with Sonny's murder. The subtle line between personal interest and structural power tightens when, after he has been told of his son's murder, the Don says, "None of you are to concern yourself with this affair. None of you are to commit any acts of vengeance, none of you are to make any inquiries to track down the murderers of my son without my express command. There will be no further acts of war against the Five Families without my express and personal wish." The reader is instantly aware that all subsequent conflict in the story will be personal. Tension tightens in the dramatic process Puzo uses, picturing the Don as acquiescent and peaceful. We are reminded, however, that Don Corleone is a man who has made only a few mistakes in his career and that he has learned from every one of them. The reader, therefore, is sympathetically engaged in the Don's fate, and finds himself approving and advocating the carnage that is inevitable in the Godfather's personal retribution.
The other characters in the novel support the themes with symbolic differences. Sonny (Santino) has an uncontrollable temper, which his enemies exploit, and a visible intransigence that weakens his strategy. His anger is the flaw that sets in motion the central conflict in the story. As he beats Carlo, his fury creates one of the novel's most brutal scenes. With fatal results, his impetuosity overcomes his reason as he leaves the mall to rush to his sister's defense. While Sonny's reputation for violence makes him thus a marked man, Michael's suave exterior serves as most protective armor for the emerging Don. His deliberately nurtured appearance of detachment from the family business, his Dartmouth education, and his alliance with Kay Adams succeed in deceiving the Corleone enemies into believing that the Don's young son is a weakling. Puzo portrays him, however, with the same quiet reasoning and chilling strategy that marked the Don, but with finer precision. Michael Corleone emerges as a legitimate American corporation man, whose exercise of power, having "made its bones" in the blood of violence, will continue in the national industry. Meanwhile, his family of the future will engage both in politics and in the mainstream of society.
Puzo also shows that this social structure has stratifications according to personal ability, as in the example of the almost anonymous brother Frederico, who finds a suitable niche as a hotel-keeper in Las Vegas. The Las Vegas enterprises bind the Corleone power to the area of entertainment. In this field Johnny Fontane personifies another level of the Godfather's person-oriented, syndicated power, since it is the Don's strength that makes Fontane's fame and fortune. Johnny knows that his relationship with the Don makes him as close to a royal patron as it was possible to be in America. Although he feels that he is a master of his particular type of music, he has learned that success depends on more than talent, that tactics must be the yeast of rising activity. The supreme tactician of the Don's strategy is, of course, the educated and supremely trained Tom Hagen, whom the Don has coached into a working machine for himself. Despite the contempt of the Sicilian families, who have never known of a non-Sicilian consigliere, Hagen has been nursed into thinking and acting like a Sicilian to the extent that he can nearly always anticipate his Don's moves. He is completely the Don's man, and is the device for keeping the Don's power in unceasing motion while the Godfather is incapacitated. He is the instrument of detection of and reconciliation with Kay that enables her to understand Michael and accept him dutifully as a husband. In time, Kay becomes as Sicilian as her mother-in-law, submitting herself to this world of men for whom the women pray. We know that these women, like the old women of Tenth Avenue in The Fortunate Pilgrim, will survive, for Puzo has warned us of their wisdom, demonstrated in Mrs. Vito Corleone's detachment from the arena of violence and her motherly condescension to the Don in his final years. We also realize that Ginny Fontane, the patient wife to whom Johnny continually returns, will inherit his world and rule his children. All the surviving characters in the story, therefore, are issues of the novel's contained world of power. When Tom Hagen assures Kay that "you and the children are the only people on this earth he couldn't harm," he is implying that the world of violence must dissipate before the rise of the new generation.
In my discussion of the specifics that define the Italian-American novel, The Godfather was used as an example of literary material created in order to force attention. Reason supports the conclusion that the feudal world of mobsters and syndicates is atypical of any minority, especially that of the Italian-Americans. Mario Puzo, however, like William Faulkner before he wrote Sanctuary, was not appreciated for the masterful novels he had published prior to The Godfather. Therefore, he wrote this novel with the avowed intention of producing a best seller. For this reason, the story's presentation of Italian-Americans has the restrictions of a cluster-cultural area. The book's point of view of Italian-American life is therefore simultaneously confined and exaggerated. There are, for example, numerous references to Sicilian customs, such as that by tradition no Sicilian can refuse a request on his daughter's wedding day, and that no Sicilian ever misses such a chance. This inner directedness intensifies the sensitivity to insulting racial references by other groups, as in the episode when Michael endures Captain McCluskey's tirade outside the hospital, "I thought I got all you guinea hoods locked up." At another time Puzo writes that it never occurs to Johnny Fontane to desert his family and children, that he is too much of an old-style Italian. Not only must the sacredness of the family supersede the needs of any member in it, but the family mores demand certain indispensable obligations. When Kay visits Mrs. Vito Corleone for the first time, the older woman is concerned only with her obligation to make sure that her guest has something to eat. Obligation is the ritual flame of the family altar. It is Sonny's inbred sense of the obligation of a Sicilian brother to protect his sister that moves him against Carlo Rizzi. It is Mama Corleone's obligation as a dutiful wife that binds her, in her wisdom, not to perceive what is going on that pains the men. Systematically, she continues to boil coffee, prepare food, and pray. Tying all the family members together is the closely knit structure of blood relationships; they are a society where family loyalty preempts loyalty to a wife. In a late chapter Puzo describes the detailed background of the Sicilian world to which Michael returns for refuge, where he learns about the roots from which his father grew. This is a world of feudal history and of the struggle of a people faced with the savagery of absolute power, where the historical Mafia has become "the illegal arm of the rich and even the auxiliary police of the legal and political structure. It had become a degenerate capitalist structure, anti-communist, anti-liberal, placing its own taxes on every form of business endeavor no matter how small." There are appealing descriptions of Sicily's pastoral beauty, and of the traditionally humanized interiors of the homes. Puzo emphasizes the Italians' need for living with appointments of beauty, often camouflaged by a stern exterior. When Michael returns to New York, he takes Kay to the decrepit brownstone house in the deteriorated neighborhood on Mulberry Street. Inside, Kay is stunned to find that it is as expensively and comfortably furnished as a millionaire's town house.
Michael's Italianism and Kay's Puritan Americanism are integrated with their marriage. At home, as Kay watches Michael's face when he receives Clemenza, "he reminded her of statues in Rome, statues of those Roman emperors of antiquity, who, by divine right, held the power of life and death over their fellow men." Kay is able to attribute this quality to Michael because she is heiress of an intellectual culture, the American transcendentalism that emerged from classical education with the discipline of Roman ideals. Her acceptance of her husband lies not only in her educated evaluation of his people, but in the identity of the genesis of their common culture.
As a novel, The Godfather has been called everything from a staggering literary triumph to a package for best-sellerdom. Admittedly it has all the formulaic requirements of sensationalism in the treatment of sex, sadism, shock, and fear; it also has authenticity, validity, artistry, and power. Puzo himself says: "I wished … I'd written it better…. It has energy and I lucked out by creating a central character that was popularly accepted as genuinely mythic. But I wrote below my gifts in that book." However, exposing a real dimension of the American ethnic-societal structure, he has succeeded in writing convincing fiction. While he has created a valid social document, he relies more on symbolic action than on metaphysical exposition. Aesthetically, he carries the reader with hurtling momentum, not embellishing the raw events with literary mannerisms. He is a master story-teller who renders the most intolerable episode entirely plausible and natural. Dramatizing in relentlessly detailed action several forms of human slaughter, he electrifies the reader into making some effort to reform law and order in society. Puzo is thus a social historian of American civilization, informing the reader of the nation's sinister and powerful fraternity of crime, and warning that the power of such a fraternity can operate only in a democracy whose law enforcement is corrupt. Puzo's genius has created extravagant characters who are so convincing that they seem both possible and appealing. Thematically, the book challenges America's racial categories, dynastic tendencies, and social prejudices, demanding that before we rent out rooms we had better set our house in order. Structurally, the book abounds with evil incident, debased sex, and primitive terror, and realistically records the solecisms and colloquialisms of the Italian-American characters. Puzo has written in The Godfather a novel of power that nearly paralyzes the emotions and the intellect with the terror of a dark evil which must be checked. The wisdom of the serpent should be utilized for its truth. This book has the content and force to change a direction in our civilization.
As an Italian-American novelist, Mario Puzo has pried open the box that has secreted the sacred blackballs of the American literary club. In making his hit, he has exposed once more the password to the inner sanctum of the governing board room. There, where the guardians of American literary conscience are still uniformed in the livery of our dichotomous maturity, the transcendentalism and the materialism decried by Van Wyck Brooks, they stand with the weapons that trigger the old conflict between good and evil. When Michael Corleone commits his first murder, he "makes his bones," and becomes a man to be respected with fear; and he gives a new nomenclature to the American dreamer who identifies with the enemy. Here is another symbol for our literary lexicon. As writers, Italian-Americans have now made their bones in their acquiescence to the brutal themes of contemporary fiction—the depravities, crime, lust, sex aberrations, violence, bigotry, racism, and hate. By using all these elements to assault the reader in The Godfather, Mario Puzo has won acceptance for his two previous books, which are important works of art and valid documents of American civilization. Those who control the machinery of critical support and sales distribution may eventually make an honest and empirical evaluation of all those Italian-American novels that have quietly and systematically gone out of print. In due time we may all discover that the Italian-American writer, who has been with us right along, has had to make a marriage with American tradition. Corleone breeds his children through an Adams; we return to the great, vast themes of America's past—the conflicts of Ahab, the search for our integrity after having sinned, The Marble Faun salvaging himself from Vietnam, the reality of putting aside the weapon that has enjoyed the sanction of power.
Like its author, the Italian-American novel has come of age. Its baptism into our faith has required a sponsor who had to be supreme in envisioning our own evil; but, surviving this initiating exaggeration, we have the fairness to accept all the other human themes that are, after all, more predominant. Meanwhile, the Italian-American novelist has survived his trauma and outgrown the defensiveness of biographical, racial, and self-conscious themes; his books are now making a dent in American fiction. By confronting either inadequacy or corruption, the contemporary hero, socially registered or assimilated, "bones" his way to salvation. As our traditional themes have demonstrated that man must know sin to save his soul, so art distorts creation in order to re-create. In the context of the novels of America the former distortion of the Italian-American was, at least, a recognition of his presence. It was up to the Italian-American writer himself to accept the challenge of this distortion. Now, like Puzo's Michael Corleone, he joins the general family, but he must keep a wary eye on its humanity. In this way, his art is evaluated on equal terms with that of other writers.
SOURCE: "The New Mythology of Crime," in Boundary 2, Vol. 3, 1975, pp. 325-57.
[In the following excerpt, Cawelti examines Puzo's depiction of the criminal organization as a family unit in The Godfather.]
The best selling novel and film of the late 1960's and early 1970's was Mario Puzo's The Godfather. Its impact has been so great—over 10 million copies of the book sold in little over three years, more millions of movie admissions and still running after several years—that one doesn't need much prescience to predict that this work will be a major turning point in the evolution of popular literature, perhaps comparable to the significance of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, certainly as important as Ian Fleming's James Bond. In the wake of The Godfather's enormous success, plans have been announced for a film sequel, while a number of less effective films about the Mafia, such as The Valachi Papers, have coasted to considerable popularity on its coat-tails. Publishers have increased their listings in crime fiction and taken advantage of the Godfather craze to reissue in paperback any recent novels which have the slightest connection with the subject of Puzo's book. Everywhere news-stands and marquees are plastered with such come-ons as "more action, sex and violence than The Godfather and The French Connection combined" or "The Big New Mafia blockbuster in the searing tradition of The Godfather." Though no TV network has yet announced a series called "One Don's Family," scores of producers and writers are doubtless racking their brains to figure out a formula that will be recognizably like The Godfather while avoiding the overt violence and sex which current mores will not sanction on the television screen. With all this activity, it seems clear that The Godfather has not only achieved a striking individual success, but has established a new fashion in the portrayal of crime.
Of course crime, particularly violent crime, has always been a sure-fire topic for the entertainment of the public. From the beginning of written literature, and, one suspects, long before that, human beings have been moved and fascinated by stories of homicide, assault, thievery and roguery of all sorts. Without exaggeration one can say that crime and literature have been in it together from the beginning. Homer launched the subject with his account of the suitors' conspiracy against Odysseus' homecoming, or perhaps one should give precedence to the even earlier account in The Iliad of the rape of Helen. Murder was a favorite subject of the Greek and Roman dramatists and of Shakespeare and other Renaissance tragedians. The development of printed literature led to an even greater and more various flowering of crime stories, from the picaresque tales and outlaw ballads of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, down to the innumerable crime and detective stories of our own age. The development of film added to this array the saga of the urban gangster which in various forms has been a staple of the American film since D. W. Griffith's The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912). And, in modern times, while the fictional criminal has been a leading figure in novel, drama, and film, his real-life model has inspired uncountable billions of words in the non-fictional form of accounts of actual crimes and criminals in newspapers, magazines, and books.
Why has the criminal held such an important place in the hearts of the great majority of peaceful and law-abiding citizens throughout the ages? Is it an expression of man's original sin, some basic instinct toward destruction or the result of an innate aggressiveness inherited from some primordial animal ancestor? These general answers share a certain unfortunate circularity: man loves crime stories because he has some basic trait which, among other things, manifests itself in a fascination with tales of crime. It may be a matter of great theoretical or metaphysical interest whether this trait is a function of free will, evolution, heredity, or environment, but this is not a question that can be answered by the analysis of popular literature. Whatever the cause, the end result is the same, a basic human delight in the literature of crime. Leaving its ultimate significance for the inquiries of theologians, psychologists, and ethologists, let us turn to a problem on which the formulas of popular literature may shed some light: the question of how men in differing cultures define crime, how they relate it to other elements of their culture, and in what ways they justify their fascination with it. This narrows our inquiry considerably and brings us to ask whether The Godfather manifests a new mythology of crime.
Before tackling this question, we must make one important proviso about the kind of evidence necessary to support the contention that The Godfather reflects a significant change in our myths of crime. We cannot take it for granted that the immense popularity of an individual work or writer reflects new cultural patterns. An individual work may succeed with the public for a variety of reasons, most important among them being the skill of the writer. If we would employ popular literature as a barometer of collective feelings and beliefs we must also remember that there is not necessarily an exact correspondence between the moral universe of a story (its implicit ideas and values) and the attitudes of the public. A popular novel or film is first of all a work of art designed to interest and move an audience. Skillful writing, striking and emotionally involving characters and situations, and a powerfully unified action can often move readers who do not share the values of the creator. There are undoubtedly limitations in the degree to which an audience can suspend its own valuations and attitudes in order to enter emotionally the moral world of a fiction, and these boundaries are probably narrower in the case of relatively unsophisticated and uneducated publics than in the case of more intellectual audiences who have been educated to extend their sympathies and to tolerate a wider range of values. Even with this qualification, the human imagination, particularly in diverse modern cultures, seems to be capable of a wide range of temporary value commitments for the sake of aesthetic pleasure. Since Mario Puzo is evidently a very able writer and The Godfather a superb example of the sort of panoramic social novel that often becomes a best-seller, we cannot argue solely on the basis of The Godfather's success that its moral universe is shared by its immense public.
However, if we can show that The Godfather is not simply an isolated individual work, but a particularly effective synthesis of narrative and thematic patterns which have been evolving in many other novels and films, we will be on much firmer ground in asserting that Puzo's creation has become successful not simply because of its individual artistic merits but because it has brought into highly effective and expressive form a vision of the character and social significance of crime which articulates widespread public attitudes and feelings. In other words, we must demonstrate that The Godfather reflects the emergence of new literary patterns for the treatment of crime, and we can best do this by showing the contrast between the central thematic and structural patterns of The Godfather and earlier literary formulas for crime stories.
The single aspect of The Godfather which seems to have made the deepest impact on the American public is Puzo's use of the central symbol of "the family." Indeed, this symbol's influence has been pervasive enough that it has virtually changed overnight the American public's favorite term for a criminal organization. (The public's fascination with the Manson family was another related though slightly different use of the term.) While the term was used in some circles prior to the publication of Puzo's book, and is derived from Italian where it has had this meaning for hundreds of years, Americans generally referred to criminal organizations as gangs, or more recently as "the Mafia," "cosa nostra" or "the syndicate." Puzo's use of "family" in The Godfather has in effect brought the Italian term "famiglia" into common and widespread American usage, but this, in itself, suggests a significant change in attitude, since the Italian "famiglia" has a very different range of associations and connotations than the English "family."
As Puzo brilliantly develops it, the symbol of the family is the basic unifying principle of The Godfather. The novel is a tale of family succession, showing the rise of the true son and heir and reaching a climax with his acceptance of the power and responsibilities of Godfather. (Ironically, the quest for the true father is also the central theme of Joyce's great modern epic Ulysses.) The Godfather is the story of how Michael Corleone comes to understand his father's character and destiny and then allows himself to be shaped by that same destiny. Most of the novel's major characters are members of the Corleone family and the main events are key points in that family's history: the marriage of a daughter, the death of a son, the death of the father, the rise of a new generation. However, Puzo extends the symbolism of the family beyond the actual progeny of Don Vito Corleone to the criminal organization of which he is the leader. Thus, in narrating the history of the Corleone family, Puzo is also giving an account of the rise, difficulties and ultimate triumph of a criminal gang. By doing so, he makes the reader view that gang as something more complex than a band of lawbreakers organized for the purpose of committing evil or illegal actions.
In sum, one central characteristic of the new mythology of crime is a fascination with criminal organizations, such as Puzo's Corleone "family," and their special kind of power. Contemporary crime literature feeds upon the image of a hidden criminal organization, so closely knit that even to reveal its existence is certain death for the informer. The members of this organization are bound together by a code of secrecy, a blood ritual, ties of kinship and cultural loyalty, and a long historical tradition dating back to Medieval Italy. Because of its secrecy, its willingness to use any means to achieve its ends, its power of life and death, and its enormous wealth and hidden political power, this organization has almost boundless power. The authority of its leaders over members of the organization and their power to manipulate the rest of society is nearly divine or godlike. This fantasy of the "organization" looms mysteriously and ominously from the pages of senatorial investigations, popular novels and films about crime since the 1950's, but until Puzo's novel, it was rare that this ghostly presence was given a fleshly solidity and vitality. Such will, I suspect, turn out to be Puzo's major contribution to the mythology of crime: through his own rich and complex knowledge of the Sicilian ethnic background, he has been able to give a "local habitation and a name" to the fantasy of the all-powerful criminal organization and thereby to make the fantasy even more plausible and persuasive. Indeed, so compellingly attractive is Puzo's vision of the criminal family that, though he invented it entirely out of books and his imagination, professional criminals have been reported as complimenting Mr. Puzo on his remarkable inside knowledge. An imaginative vision so profoundly satisfying to those as much in need of a myth as criminals themselves, seems certain to be vitally compelling to society as a whole.
From this central interest in the special character of the criminal "family" and its power, three major elements of the new mythology of crime are derived. These are 1) the character of the organization leader, the Don or Godfather, as Puzo calls him; 2) the central figure of the specialized professional criminal, highly trained and talented in his vocation and ruthless in his dedication to it—let us call him the "Enforcer" from the fact that one of the most popular versions of the character is the professional assassin; and 3) the type of narrative structure which is organized around the careful preparation and execution of a complex criminal act, the caper. To a considerable extent, the new literature of crime can be described as stories of capers which involve either a Don or an Enforcer as the protagonist.
The Don is, in many respects, a new figure in the annals of crime. Though he has an obvious resemblance to the master criminal of earlier formulaic traditions—e.g. Professor Moriarity, Fu Manchu, or Goldfinger—there are important differences in the way the Don is represented, just as there are basic differences between Puzo's "family" and these more traditional forms of criminal conspiracy. For one thing, the traditional master criminal is basically a large entrepreneur of crime who has an employer-employee relationship with his minions. His authority derives from his money and from fear of his ruthlessness. Frequently his corps of criminals do not respect or admire him. They are enslaved by fear and greed. Thus, no matter how powerful it may be, the traditional criminal organization is represented as based on the vices and weaknesses of its members. Consequently, it usually turns out to be quite simple for the hero to defeat the master criminal. The Don, on the other hand, is a figure of considerable moral authority which is derived from his wisdom and responsibility as well as from his shrewd ruthlessness. Like a father, the relationship between him and the members of his organization depends on the degree to which he embodies a style of life and a moral code. He is a center of value as well as of money and power for his adherents. His authority transcends the appeal to fear and greed and partakes, as we have seen, of a touch of the godlike. Thus, the Don serves as the supreme model and guardian of the special way of life which the criminal organization as "family" represents. This way of life is usually represented as growing out of the Sicilian immigrant tradition, an aspect of the new mythology which Puzo has developed with particular vividness and brilliance. However, I think it might also be said that the Don and his authority represent an image of organization which can be seen in opposition to those aspects of contemporary social institutions which are commonly perceived as signs of failure: the impersonality of the modern corporation on the one hand and the declining authority of the family on the other. Where the corporation executive is cold and impersonal, responsible only for the functional efficiency of his subordinates, the Don is warm and emotional, considering himself involved in every aspect of the life and death of the members of his organization. There is a tribal closeness about the criminal organization as it is portrayed in the new mythology and the Don is its theocratic center. He is not only boss, but king, judge and priest. Unlike the modern American family with its generational conflicts, its confused sexual roles, its absent fathers, neurotic mothers, and nuclear isolation, the tribe-family ruled by the Don is a patriarchy with absolutely clear roles and lines of authority. The women are women and the men are men. There is a clear code of values and sexual roles with masculine dominance and strength at the center. Within this organization the individual is part of a larger kinship or tribal group with massive power against external enemies. The individual does not have to divide himself into diverse and conflicting social roles because the family is a totality for him.
Mario Puzo's central character Don Vito Corleone is unquestionably the most powerful and compelling version of the Don yet created. However, though Puzo must be credited with the most articulate and effective development of the figure of the Don, it is also clear that the outlines of this figure had already begun to take shape in the imaginations of a number of other writers. In most earlier versions of the criminal leader, certain characteristics of the Don are still inextricably mixed up with the diabolical image of the master criminal. Thus in an earlier novel like Ira Wolfert's Tucker's People (1943), though the criminal organization has many of the same qualities as Puzo's "family," the boss is still the evil entrepreneur of crime of the pre-war criminal formulas. A character much closer to Puzo's Don appears in Leslie Waller's The Family, which was published a year earlier than The Godfather. To see a figure who is still closer to Puzo's Don, we must turn to non-fiction. Mike Royko's Boss, a recent study of Chicago's Mayor Daley, is a highly critical account of Mayor Daley's administration of the city of Chicago. Yet, in his presentation of the character of the mayor and his description of the organization which serves as the basis of his power, Royko comes interestingly close to the same compelling portrayal of a quasi-tribal family within the larger society ruled by a man of combined ruthlessness and moral force that Puzo develops in The Godfather.
While the Don is a new figure in the literature of crime, a second figure, the Enforcer, has already served as the basis of a substantial number of books and films. The Enforcer is most commonly an assassin, though in some cases he is a professional thief. His central characteristic is ruthless and brilliant professionalism. He is the master of his craft and his whole way of life and code of values center around the skillful performance of his assignments. Usually there is a basic paradox in the Enforcer's character which is an important source of his dramatic effectiveness. He is a man who applies the cool and detached rationalism of the professional specialist to matters of extreme violence and illegality. In this respect, he resembles to a certain extent the combination found in James Bond and his imitators—the bureaucratic killer, the man with a number which gives him license to kill. The Enforcer also grows out of the American tradition of the western and hard-boiled detective heroes. Like the western hero, the Enforcer is often involved in vengeance plots. Or, like the aging gunfighter, he may find himself forced to reexamine the meaning of his life. And like both gunfighter and hard-boiled detective, the Enforcer lives by a code which is deeply rooted in his profession and in the maintenance of his honor as a man of supreme skill and dedication to his role.
The Enforcer's ruthlessness and his attempt to erect an area of meaning and security in a corrupt and deceitful society through personal loyalties gains a new dimension when Puzo develops it as a central theme of The Godfather. In Michael's final justification to Kay of the life of his father, the family is presented as the focus of those personal loyalties which alone can provide security and power in a hostile society:
My father is a businessman trying to provide for his wife and children and those friends he might need someday in a time of trouble. He doesn't accept the rules of the society we live in because those rules would have condemned him to a life not suitable to a man like himself, a man of extraordinary force and character…. He refuses to live by rules set up by others, rules which condemn him to a defeated life. But his ultimate aim is to enter that society with a certain power since society doesn't really protect its members who do not have their own individual power. In the meantime he operates on a code of ethics he considers far superior to the legal structures of society…. I believe in you and the family we may have. I don't trust society to protect us. I have no intention of placing my fate in the hands of men whose only qualification is that they managed to con a block of people to vote for them…. I take care of myself, individual. Governments don't really do much for their people, that's what it comes down to, but that's not it really. All I can say, I have to help my father, I have to be on his side.
The pattern of action in which the enforcer characteristically manifests himself is the caper. The caper is a special sort of action in which an individual or a group undertake a particularly difficult feat which can only be accomplished through a stratagem of considerable subtlety and complexity. The usual structure for telling the story of a caper is by following the process of the caper itself. In many cases, the plan of the caper is revealed to the audience, followed by a suspenseful representation of the action itself, the feeling of suspense being intensified by two uncertainties: whether the caper will be discovered in process, or whether one of the complex details of the plan will go awry and ruin the whole plot. Usually the feat which the caper seeks to accomplish is a robbery or an assassination, though it may also be a variety of other actions: a kidnapping, a commando raid, an escape, an ambush, a capture, etc. As a literary or cinematic structure, the caper is rather different in its characteristics from some of the other major organizing patterns in the literature of crime. It is quite different from the detective's investigation of a mystery, the hero's pursuit and destruction of the master criminal, or the gangster's rise and fall. However, though an entire work may be structured around a caper, this type of action can be developed on a smaller scale as one or more episodes in a larger work. Thus, while The Godfather's overall structure is not a caper, many of its most important episodes take this form—for example, the attempted assassination of Don Vito, Michael's killing of Sollozo and McCluskey, the murder of Sonny Corleone, and the series of assassinations which restore the Corleone family's power.
As a dramatic structure, the caper is particularly suited to visual media like film and television, in which an elaborately interrelated series of actions can be represented with special effectiveness. However, the fact that the caper has also become a dominant structure in prose fiction and nonfiction where the medium is less suitable for this purpose, suggests that there are thematic reasons for its popularity as well. As it appears in the new mythology of crime, the caper is a study in the exercise of power by a secret organization, and it usually involves a complex use of technology as well as elaborate planning and coordination. The caper is usually carried out against a large organization which has its own complex routines and technology. Its ultimate aim is an exchange of power either through the acquisition of some form of wealth or through the destruction of important leaders of the opposing organization. Thus, the narrative structure of the caper brings us back to those major concerns with organization outside the law and the exercise of power which we also saw as the underlying fascination of Mario Puzo's narrative of the history of the Corleone family.
"Don't you want to finish school, don't you want to be a lawyer? Lawyers can steal more money with a briefcase than a thousand men with guns and masks."
It was at this time that the Don got the idea that he ran his world far better than his enemies ran the greater world which continually obstructed his path.
As soon as the Corleone family set up their usual business liaison with the local police force they were informed of all such complaints and all crimes by professional criminals. In less than a year Long Beach became the most crime-free town of its size in the United States. Professional stickup artists and strong-arms received one warning not to ply their trade in the town. They were allowed one offense. When they committed a second they simply disappeared. The flimflam home-improvement gyp artists, the door-to-door con men were politely warned that they were not welcome in Long Beach. Those confident con men who disregarded the warnings were beaten within an inch of their lives. Resident young punks who had no respect for law and proper authority were advised in the most fatherly fashion to run away from home. Long Beach became a model city.
Thus, a new mythology of crime has manifested itself in two related story formulas—the Enforcer's caper and the saga of the family. At first glance, it seems odd that the one thing which marks both of these new patterns—a relatively sympathetic and even admiring presentation of criminal or extralegal organization and actions—should emerge so strongly at a time when the political arena resounds with demands for "law and order" and passionate denunciations of a rising crime rate. However, this seeming discrepancy gives us some basic clues to the cultural significance of these new fashions in the literature of crime. First of all, one of the major functions of popular literature is to humanize and give order to disturbing phenomena by relating them to conventional views of the world. Consequently, we would expect a public concern with organized crime to make it an important literary subject. Morris and Hawkins point to this aspect of the literature of crime in their explanation of the public's fascination with the idea of a national crime syndicate:
Whether alarm and uneasiness are induced by an apparently chaotic upsurge of crime and lawlessness, or whether explanation in terms of anonymous and intangible "social forces" is found unsatisfying, it is likely that the attribution of responsibility to a group of identifiable human agents for a large proportion of the disturbing happenings could be both intellectually and emotionally reassuring…. In the field of crime, the national crime syndicate provides a specific focus or target for fear and discontent.
This interpretation of the mythopoeic function of organized crime as scapegoat for more general ills is borne out by the success of the Enforcer vs. the syndicate formula. The violent emotions and bitter hatred which are so clearly expressed in these books suggest that there is a portion of the public frustrated and angry enough to require a vicarious bloodbath, a St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of the evil ones, to satisfy or express their rage. For such emotions organized crime makes a perfect target, a substitute for the "communist conspiracy" which served a similar function in earlier decades. Like the "communist conspiracy," the concept of organized crime provides the image of a nationwide web of evil created by a specific group of individuals. The formula of the Enforcer vs. the syndicate manages to blame this specific group of individuals for all the nation's ills, and then represents their destruction with appropriate violence.
However, while the cruder manifestations of the Enforcer story are based on just such a simple scapegoating, we certainly cannot say this of more complex versions of the new mythology of crime which represent thieves, assassins and criminal leaders with respect and sympathy. The Godfather is certainly not a scapegoating work in any simple sense, if at all. The Corleone family is not held responsible for the ills of American society, nor is it driven out or destroyed. On the contrary, what Puzo and other sophisticated contemporary crime writers seem to be doing is exploring the ironic relationship between crime and American society. In this respect, the new mythology of crime can be interpreted as a fictional working-out of some of the major propositions of Daniel Bell's well-known theory of "Crime as an American Way of Life." In this brilliant and prophetic essay, which first appeared in 1953, Bell developed with shocking persuasiveness the proposition that in many respects organized crime resembles the kind of ruthless business enterprise which successful Americans have always carried on:
Yet, after all, the foundation of many a distinguished older American fortune was laid by sharp practices and morally reprehensible methods. The pioneers of American capitalism were not graduated from Harvard's School of Business Administration. The early settlers and founding fathers, as well as those who "won the West" and built up cattle, mining, and other fortunes, often did so by shady speculations and a not inconsiderable amount of violence. They ignored, circumvented, or stretched the law when it stood in the way of America's destiny and their own—or were themselves the law when it served their purposes. This has not prevented them and their descendants from feeling proper moral outrage when, under the changed circumstances of the crowded urban environments, late comers pursued equally ruthless tactics.
Bell makes two related points which have important implications for the new mythology of crime. First, he shows how the association between newer immigrant groups and crime was a perfectly natural result of the social fact that these groups were blocked by prejudice and the power of established groups from the ordinary channels of business enterprise. Therefore, many enterprising and ambitious young men from Southern and Eastern European immigrant groups turned to crime as the only possible route to success. In short, Al Capone and his ilk were not scheming monsters of the underworld but followers of Horatio Alger. Second, Bell points out that most organized criminal activity has centered in areas like gambling and bootlegging which Americans generally do not regard as criminal, yet moralistically insist on passing laws against. These two themes—crime as a means of rising in society and as a necessary response to America's moralistic hypocrisy about gambling, drinking, and other indulgences of the flesh—tend to humanize the criminal, to make of him essentially a person like the rest of us, sharing our hopes and aspirations. This is a more sophisticated way of treating crime in terms of "a group of identifiable human agents" than the simple-minded scapegoating of the anti-syndicate Enforcer stories. The Godfather is a particularly brilliant example of this kind of humanization. In his story of the Corleone family, Mario Puzo fully embodies in character and action his perception of what might be called the ironic respectability of crime. In an earlier essay on "Why Crime is Good for America," [in The Godfather Papers] Puzo had more explicitly spelled out this paradoxical argument:
Why is [crime] good for America? Because these policemen, government employees, bookkeepers, sundry clerks do not spend their "black" money on wine, women and song. They do not roister and revel. They are solid members of society. The money goes for a new house in suburbia where the kids can grow up untarnished by crime-breeding slums. The money goes for college educations that will transform prospective welfare clients into society-enriching doctors, engineers and certified accountants.
Puzo is, of course, being ironic here as he is throughout most of this mildly Swiftian satire. Apparently, he also feels that The Godfather is an ironic work of this sort, a satiric attack on organized crime. If this was his intention, it clearly missed most of his audience, who quite obviously took the Corleone family as almost wholly admirable and sympathetic people. I would argue instead that the great effectiveness of The Godfather results in large part from Puzo's ambiguity on this very point. There is irony in the bourgeois respectability of Don Vito Corleone, but it is a double irony. On the surface there is a discrepancy between the peaceful suburban domesticity of the Corleone family and the violent crimes which support the façade of wealth and prestige. But the deeper irony is that in the corrupt and unjust world of modern American society, the family's illegal power is a justifiable necessity. In light of the frequent glimpses we get of the endemic hypocrisy, amorality, and brutality of this supposedly respectable American society, there is certainly more truth than irony in the narrator's observation that "the Don got the idea that he ran his world far better than his enemies ran the greater world which continually obstructed his path." And while one may quake a bit at the implications of the narrator's description of the family's reform of Long Beach, this is exactly what many Americans have dreamed of doing in their flight to the suburbs. The final irony, central to The Godfather and to the more sophisticated forms of the new mythology of crime, might be summed up in Don Vito's famous maxim that "lawyers can steal more money with a briefcase than a thousand men with guns and masks." Or as Puzo, himself, puts it in one of his essays:
Society, cloaked in the robes of law, masked by religion, armed with authority sprung from the beginning of history is itself the true archcriminal.
This view is not, in itself, a new one. In fact it has probably been a commonplace self-justification of criminals for centuries. Vidocq, the fascinating nineteenth century French criminal, who was, ironically, one of the first great detectives, tells us in his memoirs of how he once remonstrated with a friend about his cheating at gambling and received the following reply:
"You're not a child," said my honorable friend; "there's no question of robbery. They only correct fortune rather well, and believe me, that's the way it's done in the salon as well as the tavern. There they cheat—that's the accepted word—and the banker, who in the morning in his banking house commits a crime in figuring interest, traps you very calmly that evening at play."
What could I answer to such formidable arguments? Nothing! The only thing left for me was to take the money, which I did.
However, this view of society has not, until quite recently, found widespread expression in American popular culture, particularly in works widely consumed by the middle class. Even more strikingly the spread of this cynical and despairing sense of American society has been associated, first, with a fascination with the hidden network of organized crime and then, in the last few years, with the complex and sympathetic treatment of criminal organizations. This aspect of the new mythology of crime is particularly interesting in light of the insistence by Bell and other scholars that the period of the gangster and the Mafia is over:
Ironically, the social development which made possible the rise to political influence sounds, too, the knell of the rough Italian gangster. For it is the growing number of Italians with professional training and legitimate business success that both prompts and permits the Italian group to wield increasing political influence; and increasingly it is the professionals and businessmen who provide models for Italian youth today, models that hardly existed twenty years ago. Ironically, the headlines and exposés of "crime" of the Italian "gangsters" came years after the fact. Many of the top "crime" figures had long ago forsworn violence, and even their income, in large part, was derived from legitimate investments (real estate in the case of Costello, motor haulage and auto dealer franchises in the case of Adonis) or from such quasi-legitimate but socially respectable sources as gambling casinos. Hence society's "retribution" in the jail sentences for Costello and Adonis was little more than a trumped up morality that disguised a social hypocrisy.
Why, then, should there be all this current fascination with organized crime? Why is it that the mythology of organized professional crime should flourish at a time when it seems to be becoming a less important factor in American society? The answer, I think, lies in the recent emergence of new criminal patterns, which have become an object of increasing public concern under the slogan "crime in the streets." Characteristically, this new kind of crime is non-professional, is usually not carried on by organizations and gangsters, and is seen as a direct threat to the lives and property of the great majority of citizens in a way that the activities of the criminal gangs never did. The criminologist Radzinowicz describes these new patterns of crime in the following way:
It may even be true to say that new frontiers of crime have been opened up by the affluent society and the welfare state. Has contemporary crime assumed a new physiognomy? I can discover eight features which may be regarded as prima facie evidence that it has.
First, the growth of motiveless destruction, hooliganism. Second, certain other kinds of violence. Third, expansion of new forms of stealing, such as automobile thefts and very lucrative robberies. Fourth, a shift towards disintegrated social behavior and drug consumption. Fifth, a spread of occupational crime, white collar or blue collar illegality, of illegal conduct by those generally presumed to be law-abiding. Sixth, a stronger contingent of offenders from the middle strata of society as compared with the working classes. Seventh, an increased proportion of crime by the younger and the young-adult groups. Eighth, the influx of first offenders and their relatively greater share in crime as compared with recidivists.
It seems to me that the two crucial aspects of these new criminal patterns are first, that they indicate a striking spread of criminal behavior and attitudes to the point where they threaten sectors of the middle class who were largely immune from the dangers of violence, assault and robbery in previous decades. Moreover, these patterns of behavior and attitude not only represent an increasing likelihood that a middle-class family will experience assault, robbery, or vandalism, but that members of the middle class will themselves become involved in crime. Thus, these new patterns of crime also imply an erosion of traditional middle-class values and modes of security and protection. The most obvious, and to many members of the middle class, most disturbing, index of these new patterns of crime is the invasion of what had previously been middle-class sanctuaries by forms of behavior and attitudes which until recently had been largely confined to urban ghettos. The flow of drugs, of thievery, vandalism, and various forms of violence into suburbs and university communities over the past decade have been perceived by much of the public as a vast upsurge in crime and a profound breakdown in the social order. Against this background, the new mythology of the criminal organization fills a complex of emotional needs. On the simplest level, it provides a reassuring explanation of the apparent erosion of values and breakdown of order by representing these disturbing social phenomena as the direct result of massive conspiracy of evil. But, in its more complex forms, such as in The Godfather, the new mythology presents the criminal organization more sympathetically, indeed almost nostalgically, as a form of traditional social organization which has successfully resisted the decline of authority, the breakdown of values, and the alienation and disorder of an increasingly corrupt American society. Puzo's "family" with its complex of loyalties, its patriarchal authority, and its boundless power to protect its members and guarantee them instant and complete justice, provides a compelling escape into fantasy from our pervasive sense of the breakdown of traditional social forms, moral standards, and basic security arising from the troubling new social changes of the 1960's and 1970's. In a related way, the heroic image of the Enforcer is another fantasy alternative to the fears of powerlessness, violence, and social chaos which afflict contemporary Americans. That both of these fantasies are associated with professional crime is perhaps best understood as an indication of how deeply Americans fear that the present social trends are leading toward catastrophe, for, in the new mythology, the most important aspect of the "family" is its power to impose authority and order for itself in a chaotic universe. Once viewed as the very antithesis of the American way, the gangster has increasingly come to represent traditional patterns of order and value.
The most curious thing about the new mythology of crime is the fact that in some of its expressions, such as the Enforcer vs. syndicate formula, organized crime functions as a scapegoat, a terrible evil which must be extirpated, while in other versions, the "family" is, as we have seen, a symbol of the most positive traditional values. To some extent the difference between these treatments of the criminal organization is probably to be accounted for by differences in audience and tradition. The Enforcer vs. syndicate formula is as much an extension of the earlier hard-boiled detective story as it is an expression of the new mythology of crime. Works like the "Executioner" share The Godfather's fascination with criminal organizations and with the exercise of violent extra-legal power, but at the same time these works try to maintain a traditional moral distinction between good and evil. Because the Enforcer vs. syndicate story usually appears in cheap pulp novels which are luridly and crudely written, while the more complex and sympathetic view of the "family" appears in the form of long and complex bestsellers and is usually written with some degree of literary artfulness and sophistication, I am inclined to believe that we are dealing with a semi-literate lower- and lower-middleclass public on one hand and with the more educated middleclass public on the other. Both groups perceive contemporary American society as riddled by corruption and disorder, but the former group's response is anger and frustration which calls forth scapegoating. The more educated and successful members of the middle-class public seem to be more inclined toward a humanizing treatment of the criminal organization in which a dominant element is a demonstration that the "family" stands for positive, traditional values, and that it has the means to enforce these values in a world where they are threatened.
Unfortunately, the situation is somewhat more complicated than this because the enjoyment of Enforcer stories is certainly not limited to the semi-literate, and The Godfather, in its film version, was enormously successful with all groups of Americans. Evidently, it is possible for many of the same persons to enjoy stories in which organized crime is treated as an evil conspiracy responsible for all contemporary American problems as well as narratives in which such organizations are presented as bastions of loyalty and security in a chaotic society. Yet, as one looks back over the history of crime in literature, one can see the same ambiguous mixture of horror and fascination, of attraction and repulsion consistently at work. What has changed significantly is the kind of crime that is the center of interest. Perhaps the basic explanation of the long-lasting tradition of literary crime lies in the way crime serves as an ambiguous mirror of social values, reflecting both our overt commitments to certain principles of morality and order and our hidden resentments and animosity against these principles. Thus, in nineteenth-century England and America, the focal point of conceptions of morality and social authority was the domestic circle. At the same time, the literature of crime and the actual crimes which most fascinated the public were primarily murders of relatives—husbands poisoning wives, nephews murdering wealthy aunts, cousins doing away with cousins. These were the staples of the classical detective story and of the great Victorian murder trials. It seems quite likely that the public's ambiguous fascination with such crimes was a way of vicariously working out feelings of hatred and frustration imposed by the constraints of one's own family situation. The emergence of the gangster hero in the 1920's and 1930's signalled the dominance, particularly in America, of a new constellation of values. The family circle, never as strong in America as in England, had increasingly lost its moral authority while the ideology of individual success and rising in society became the prevailing ethos. Overtly, the classic gangster film, and the hard-boiled detective story portrayed the downfall of an individual who had sought wealth and power by immoral and illegal means. Yet, beneath the moral surface of the story, the gangster film expressed a burning resentment against respectable society and a fascination with the untrammeled and amoral aggressiveness of a Little Caesar or a Scarface. Similarly, the hardboiled detective story presented a hero who not only acted outside the law to bring about true justice, but had turned his back on the ideal of success. In both these formulas, the treatment of crime enabled writers to express a bitter feeling that the ideal of success was corrupt and immoral, while still insisting on the basic moral proposition that crime does not pay.
What I have called the new mythology of crime ambiguously mirrors a world in which the individualistic ethos no longer satisfactorily explains and orders society for most members of the public. The new center of value is the large organization and its collective power. The drama of the criminal gang has become a kind of allegory of the corporation and the corporate society. When the "Executioner" and his fellow enforcers are exterminating the syndicate they are, on the surface, purging the evil corporation so that the good ones can flourish. But, covertly, the "Executioner" is engaged in a violent individualist revolution against an alienating and corrupting bureaucratic society. The attack on syndicate bigwigs is a thinly disguised assault on the managerial elite who hold the reins of corporate power and use it for their own benefit. To openly express such feelings would require a transformation of the political and social perspective of many readers. The disguised allegory of the Enforcer story permits indulgence in a feeling of hatred against controlling organizations without requiring a new perception of society.
Puzo and other more sophisticated exponents of the new mythology of crime also treat the criminal organization as a symbolic mirror of the business corporation, but in a more complex way. In The Godfather, the surface story is a tragic drama of responsibility. Michael Corleone must give up his earlier dreams and aspirations and assume the role of Godfather, a position that not only makes him the leader of the "family" but also implicates him in deeds of murder and betrayal that contradict his previous scheme of values. But this is only the surface story. Covertly, Puzo's novel is a celebration of the "family." Michael's becoming Godfather, far from the destruction of his original hopes, is the true fulfillment of his destiny as an exceptional man. The "family" is a fantasy of collective, organized power that actually works to protect and support the individual as opposed to the coldness and indifference of the modern business or government bureaucracy. The Godfather and other related works permit us to enjoy vicariously the fantasy of an organization with boundless power and a true concern for the welfare of its members, just as the solid nineteenth-century family man could participate imaginatively in a nice bit of domestic homicide thereby projecting his latent feelings of frustration and hostility toward his spouse onto a fictional or actual criminal.
Thus, the new mythology of crime uses our perennial fascination with criminal activity to work out in stories the tension between traditional values and our sense of the decline of security, significance, and order in the corporate society. The image of the "family" with its closely knit traditional authority and its power to protect the interests of its members has a powerful fascination in a period when the authority and power of the institutions which have traditionally provided direction and protection for individuals—the actual family, the church, the informal structures of the closelyknit neighborhood group, the well-ordered career lines of the American middle class and the ideology of success—seem to be threatened by social change and upheaval. Another contemporary cultural factor that is probably reflected in the new mythology of crime is our increasingly ambiguous feeling about the unlimited power of the government which has been so strongly intensified by our disturbing course of action in Vietnam. I suspect there is a definite relation between the fascination with limitless criminal power in the new mythology of crime and the public's reluctant awareness of the uncontrollable power of violence in the hands of the government. Perhaps there is some reassurance in the vision of unlimited extralegal violence being used in responsible and meaningful ways by men with whose purposes the reader can sympathize, as in The Godfather.
But whatever the specific cultural sources of the new mythology of crime, it seems clear to me that it expresses a deep uncertainty about the adequacy of our traditional social institutions to meet the needs of individuals for security, for justice, for a sense of significance. The fact that these concerns are reflected through the dark mirror of crime indicates that most members of the public are not prepared to fully confront and acknowledge the extent of their despair. Here, as we have seen in the case of earlier crime formulas, the use of crime as a subject enables the public to give some expression to its latent hostility and frustration while still maintaining an overt stance of affirmation of the conventional morality. The new mythology of crime generally continues to affirm a traditional view of the immorality of crime, at least to the extent of differentiating between crime and legality, but the façade of morality and legality usually appears to be so shaky and rotten that one becomes more and more aware of the disturbing vision that lies behind it: the dark message that America is a society of criminals, or the still more disturbing irony that a "family" of criminals might be more humanly interesting and morally satisfactory than a society of empty routines, irresponsibly powerful organization, widespread corruption, and meaningless violence. The disturbing face that glares from the dark mirror of crime may increasingly come to seem our own.
SOURCE: "The Godfather," in Bestsellers: Popular Fiction of the 1970s, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981, pp. 38-41.
[In the following essay, Sutherland discusses the publishing history of The Godfather and the source of the novel's wide popular appeal.]
I wrote it to make money…. How come you people never ask writers about money?
The background to The Godfather is well known and blatantly self-proclaimed. Puzo wrote two 'literary' novels which were well received (The New York Times's 'small classic' is a phrase which stuck in the proud author's mind), but which netted only $6,500 between them. 'I was forty-five years old and tired of being an artist…. It was time to grow up and sell out.' Publishers had shown some interest in 'that Mafia stuff' in his second novel, which dealt principally with the struggle of an Italian immigrant family. So Puzo drew up the outline of a full-blown gangster saga set in the 1940s New York, and loosely based on folk demons like 'Uncle Frank' Costello. Those ten pages earned him $5,000 advance from Putnam. This was 1965; Puzo, who seems by his own account to be a hand-to-mouth sort of writer, finally delivered the manuscript in 1968, spurred by the need for some money to take his family on holiday. While he was away, paperback rights were auctioned to Bantam for a then record $410,000. Once published The Godfather assumed the #1 spot on the New York Times list, and held a place in the top ten titles for sixty-seven weeks. It was also number one in England, France and Germany; countries where, perhaps, interest in 'gangster' America was heightened by the Vietnam war. 'They tell me', Puzo wrote in 1972, 'it's the fastest and bestselling fiction paperback of all times.' By 1978 it was one of the select half-dozen novels to have broken the 10 m. sales barrier in the US, and is credited by Hackett as being the bestselling novel ever. By the end of the decade The Godfather's publishers were claiming worldwide sales of over 15 m.
Puzo's only mistake in an otherwise triumphant 'selling out' was to release the film rights for $12,500 while he was between agents, and at a time when a few thousand still 'looked like Fort Knox.' Altogether the novelist's connection with the movie industry was unhappy. He was hired by Paramount at $500 a week to co-author the Godfather script with another 2.5 per cent 'points' in the profits. But the self-effacing nature of the work offended his aggressively freelancing instincts. It particularly upset him that he was not consulted on the final cut—that last and most influential stage of editorial revision. 'It was not MY movie,' he concluded, and vowed never to work in Hollywood again 'unless I have complete control'—a stipulation which he was realistic enough to acknowledge might disbar him from further serious film work.
None the less the film, starring Marlon Brando, James Caan and Al Pacino, was Judged by most critics to have been better of its kind than the novel. As New York critic Pauline Kael saw it, Puzo's Godfather was a clumsy performance, 'all itch and hype and juicy roman à clef,' but 'Puzo provided what Coppola needed: a story teller's outpouring of incidents and details to choose from, the folklore behind the headlines, heat and immediacy, the richly familiar.' Swollen with this kind of praise, Coppola became overnight a cult director reputedly able to make silk purses even out of rehashed Little Caesar. But to hear Puzo tell it, Coppola's motives were not much different from his own; both were working calculatedly 'below their gifts' so as to bankroll better things:
One interview I have to admit depressed me. Francis Coppola explained he was directing The Godfather so that he could get the capital to make pictures he really wanted to make. What depressed me was that he was smart enough to do this at the age of thirty-two when it took me forty-five years to figure out I had to write The Godfather so that I could do the other books I really wanted to do.
It is a reflection on author/auteur vanity that neither the enriched Puzo nor Coppola have, in the event, done anything surpassingly good after the dizzy success of their Godfathers. Puzo's Fools Die earned, in its turn, a record advance paperback sale of $2.2 m. and was proclaimed 'The publishing event of the decade,' yet only someone addicted to gambling could have read this rambling, painfully autobiographical Las Vegas melodrama without embarrassment, and one learned with gratitude that Puzo's next commission was as consultant to Godfather III. For his part Coppola weighed in with the $30 m. epic Apocalypse Now.
The germ of The Godfather is an exuberantly paradoxical essay which Puzo wrote for Cavalier (a girly mag) in 1966; 'How crime keeps America healthy, wealthy, cleaner and more beautiful.' Puzo has elsewhere written 'A modest proposal,' and evidently feels an affinity with Swift. In his panegyric to American crime he puts forward a 'logical' argument for abolishing conventional civic virtue:
How are we to adjust to a society that drafts human beings to fight a war, yet permits its businessmen to make a profit from the shedding of blood?… as society becomes more and more criminal, the well-adjusted citizen, by definition, must become more criminal. So let us now dare to take the final step.
In the spirit of this final step the best adjusted citizen of all is taken to be the most powerful criminal in America, Don Corleone, the Godfather. And as the essay applauds the social achievements of crime, so the novel insinuates a warm commendation of Mafia 'family life,' of the military virtues of the family's 'soldiers' and the efficiency and high business ethics of the 'organization.' These are the true Americans; 'are we not better men,' the modestly murderous Don asks, 'than those pezzonovanti who have killed countless millions of men in our lifetimes?.'
Puzo complains that readers fail to register 'the casual irony in my books.' But he confesses that this quality in The Godfather was not just casual but oblique: 'so oblique in fact, that most of the critics missed the irony in the novel and attacked me for glorifying the Mafia.' A disservice was done to Puzo in this respect by Brando's superbly leonine interpretation of the Don, and the self-justifying speeches which Coppola added to make a decent-sized 'part' for his star—especially the role the script assigns to Corleone in the treaty meeting with Sollozzo. This scene also stresses that the Corleone family will have nothing to do with the 'dirty' crimes of narcotics, a special plea which sets up a facile opposition of good-guy gangsters and bad-guy gangsters. Watching the film it is only too easy to believe the canard that Puzo and Paramount were paid a million dollars to do an advertising job on the Mafia. But the novel, while not exactly a modern Jonathan Wild the Great, insists on being read ironically if one reads it at all carefully. Take the following description of the Don's funeral. He has died, it will be remembered, of natural causes, cultivating his garden. By a stroke of acting genius, Brando improvised the famous business in which grandad cuts out orange-peel fangs with which playfully to terrify the children, just before having a massive heart attack. As with the whole creation of the part it is magnificent, but fatally humanizes Puzo's consummate businessman:
It was time for the cemetery. It was time to bury the great Don. Michael linked his arm with Kay's and went out into the garden to join the host of mourners. Behind him came the caporegimes followed by their soldiers and then all the humble people the Godfather had blessed during his lifetime. The baker Nazorine, the widow Colombo and her sons and all the countless others of his world he had ruled so firmly but justly. There were even some who had been his enemies, come to do him honour. Michael observed all this with a tight, polite smile…. He would follow his father. He would care for his children, his family, his world. But his children would grow in a different world. They would be doctors, artists, scientists. Governors. Presidents. Anything at all.
The epigraph which Puzo chose for The Godfather is Balzac's 'Behind every great fortune there lies a crime.' It may be that he is au courant with nineteenth-century French fiction. But it seems more likely that he borrowed Balzac's apt sarcasm from C. Wright Mills's The Power Elite, which makes the same epigraphic use of it. In the mordant description of the new Don's funeral musings, Puzo gives his own social theory of the formation of America's pezzonovanti/power elite, and the barely hidden criminal power on which governors and presidents build their 'legitimate' authority.
Irony, especially anti-American irony, never sold 15 m. novels, and Puzo was wise to keep it so oblique as to be invisible to most critics and virtually all lay readers, for whom it would fatally have interrupted the pleasures of the quick read. Ignoring any literary sophistication, popular reception of The Godfather ran along two well-grooved channels. There was the shocked response, which found in the novel a naturalistic exposure of American vice almost too horrible to contemplate: 'This is the hard, chilling, incredible, brutal reality of the vice that this nation tolerates' (from a Chicago newspaper, appropriately enough). And there was the thrilled reading which found the novel, in Kael's phrase, 'a juicy roman à clef.' The ubiquitously reported scene of Sinatra balling Puzo out in a Hollywood restaurant fuelled the sales-promoting conviction that here was a novel/film which spilled some interesting beans.
Whether it was read for the inside story of American crime, or the inside story of show business scandal, The Godfather was universally taken as a novel whose author knew what he was writing about. Since Mario Puzo was himself of Sicilian extraction it was only too easy to see the work as a rare violation of ten centuries of omerta (silence)—the work of a once-in-a-lifetime canary like Joe Valachi. (Puzo, incidentally, strenuously affirms that his novel is based solely on 'research'—but he would, wouldn't he?) And yet the novel's cleverest trick is to go through an elaborate ritual of apparently disclosing while actually giving no hard information for the reader's $1.95. Like Valachi, Puzo shapes as if to tell. But since, unlike Valachi, he has no privilege against libel law and no FBI protection against assassination, his 'revelations' are folded back into fiction. Of course, the reader quite understands the necessity for this. Did not Sinatra successfully sue a British newspaper which injudiciously slandered him by falsely suggesting that he might have mob-associations along the lines of Johnny Fontane? Did not the Italian-American Anti Defamation League lean on Paramount so that the names 'Mafia' and 'Cosa Nostra' could not be mentioned in a film, which if it is not about the Mafia and Cosa Nostra is about nothing?
By drawing the audience/reader into a conspiratorial acquiescence with its prudent vagueness—the omissions of reference, misnamings and distortions—The Godfather contrives to suggest indiscretion while in fact giving nothing away. And in this pleasantly tantalizing game with the reader, Puzo is helped by the paradoxical nature of the mythological (and historical?) Mafia. In the popular mind, it is an institution which is invisible—yet all-powerful. It is omnipresent, but no one in authority acknowledges its existence (for most of his career, for example, J. Edgar Hoover apparently denied the existence of any significant organized crime in America). It is a force about which one knows nothing—except that it affects and possibly controls every department of one's life.
Since a totally 'secret' organization can only be constituted and tested against the reader's fantasy of it, Puzo can pull off yet another spectacular trick in The Godfather. This is to suggest that Cosa Nostra is so powerfully influential as to have rendered the rest of American life a mere accessory to itself. Where other institutions appear in the novel they are either shams or secretly controlled by the family. Anything can be fixed. Union co-operation, for example, can be turned off and on like a tap by Don Corleone; this it is, together with limitless finance and violence against prominent persons that makes him a power in Hollywood. Among his minor fixes is to speed up Michael's demobilization—had his son so wished he could, of course, have arranged promotion or release from military service altogether. The omnipotence and omnipresence of the Mafia explain why in a novel of gangster life there is no opposing law enforcement by society at large. The two policemen we encounter in the novel are Mafia place men in uniform—McCluskey and Neri. Neri, the fearless executioner, is particularly interesting since the narrative contrives to suggest that he serves Don Michael Corleone as the real NYPD police chief:
And now, finally, Albert Neri, alone in his Bronx apartment, was going to put on his police uniform again. He brushed it carefully. Polishing the holster would be next. And his policeman's cap too, the visor had to be cleaned, the stout black shoes shined. Neri worked with a will. He had found his place in the world, Michael Corleone had placed his absolute trust in him, and today he would not fail that trust.
He is not, as one might think, preparing for a mayor's parade. Properly turned out, Neri puts three bullets in rival Don Barzini's chest with his service .38 for the honour of his own Don.
Similarly, there is no justice in the novel save what the Mafia buys or what the Godfather administers. The first scene in which the distraught undertaker, Amerigo Bonasera, sees the defilers of his daughter set free by a tainted judge establishes the hollowness of 'legitimate' institutions. 'For justice we must go to Don Corleone,' he resolves. The few 'outsiders' in the novel, like Jules Segal, Tom Hagen and Kay Adams, have the status of refugees who, by an extraordinary stroke of luck, have managed to struggle into the 'real' world. All three are 'adopted.' Segal, the struck-off doctor, becomes the family physician. Hagen, the former Irish waif, becomes the family lawyer. Kay, the blonde girl whose ancestors came across with the founding fathers, becomes family tout court. She is converted to Catholicism and as Mrs. Corleone becomes plus Sicilienne que les Siciliennes. The novel ends with this patrician young WASP preparing to take communion, herself transubstantiated more than any wafer could be:
She emptied her mind of all thought of herself, of her children, of all anger, of all rebellion, of all questions. Then with a profound and deeply willed desire to believe, to be heard, as she had done every day since the murder of Carlo Rizzi, she said the necessary prayers for the soul of Michael Corleone.
The Mafia and the Godfather possess everything and every-body. The fabric of American life—its institutions, political, legislative and judicial, its law enforcement, its entertainment industries, its commerce are reduced to filmy insubstantiality. The Mafia has hollowed out America, and filled what remains with itself.
Puzo's vision of secret yet irresistibly extensive Mafia omnipotence has clear elements of solipsism and maniac self-aggrandizement in it. And to indulge a vein of speculation, one may note that immediately after the Second World War was a significant period in which to have set The Godfather. Historically the two years 1946–8, in which the novel's main action occurs, cover the only moment in history when one man—the President of the United States—enjoyed global omnipotence. The US's sole possession of nuclear weapons, and the presidential structure which put one man's finger on the button, gave a new dimension to the idea of absolute power. For a moment, Nero's fantasy about the world having but one neck to cut came true. Yet this climax of American potency was also a period of national shame for Italian Americans. Italy as wartime enemy had made a notoriously poor showing in the recent war; revealed herself as militarily incompetent and cowardly. The Duce was universally regarded as a poltroon. It is possible, I suspect, that these contrary facts are somehow condensed into the 'dreamwork' of The Godfather—a novel which fantasizes about the private possession of irresistible power, and whose chronicle reasserts Italian military prowess as displayed in the savage, but highly disciplined, wars of the families. Puzo, incidentally, was in his mid-twenties at the time of The Godfather's main action, and served in the Army Air Corps in Europe.
As a bestseller The Godfather is more like Love Story than Jaws. That is to say it renovates old material rather than introducing new. Any moderately practised cultural consumer of the 1960s would come to Puzo's novel more of an expert on the Mafia than sharks. American TV, films and paper-back fiction have been obsessed with gangsters, mobsters, urban banditti for most of the twentieth century. And their images of the arch-criminal—the capo di tutti capi—have traditionally been both morally ambiguous and emotionally extravagant. Orwell, for example, noted with astonishment the perverse hero-worship that a Neapolitan crook like Capone inspired: 'Books have been written about Al Capone that are hardly different in tone from the books written about Henry Ford, Stalin, Lord Northcliffe and all the rest of the log cabin to White House brigade.'
Against this one can put a hysterical, hostile depiction of the Godfather genus from Spillane's Kiss Me, Deadly:
The Mafia. The stinking, slimy Mafia. An oversize mob of ignorant, lunkheaded jerks…. Someplace at the top of the heap was a person. From him the fear radiated like from the centre of a spiderweb. He sat on his throne and made a motion of his hand and somebody died. He made another motion and somebody was twisted until they screamed. A nod of his head did something that sent a guy leaping from a roof because he couldn't take it any more.
Just one person did that.
The achievement of Puzo's Godfather is to have made a stale cliche fresh again, and to have brought the pervasive American ambivalence about stylish crime under a new artistic control. He managed this by an injection of 'researched' historicity and ethnic inwardness; by a cool, deadpan naturalism which works against the melodramatic and sensationally charged subject matter; and by an irony which permits us to read (and Puzo to own) the work as 'critique.' At the same time the irony is so oblique as to be virtually private; 'unsophisticated' readings of the novel are also permitted. Frank, vicarious thrill-seeking approaches are not turned away. As a result 15 m. copies are sold and The Godfather takes its place as the bestseller of bestsellers.
SOURCE: A review of The Sicilian, in Time, December 3, 1984, p. 82.
[In the following review, Sheppard offers praise for The Sicilian.]
The Godfather was an irresistible tale of corruption and an equally tempting celebration of two sacred institutions, the family and free enterprise. The Sicilian, an offshoot of the 1969 bestseller, is also an offer of evil and romance that cannot be refused. Mario Puzo remains one of America's best popular storytellers, though his years of whittling movie scripts have resulted in chapters that seem spindly next to those in the full-bodied Godfather. In fact the novel could be cut down and inserted in the earlier book. Offstage, at Mafia Central on Long Island, Don Corleone directs events that have profound effects in Sicily and teach Son Michael a cruel lesson in survival.
The time is 1950, and young Corleone is preparing to end the two-year exile imposed after he killed Sollozzo the Turk and the corrupt Police Captain McCluskey. Michael's final assignment is to arrange the escape of a Sicilian outlaw who has become an endangered folk hero. This proves difficult. The godfather-in-training is given the runaround and a chance to witness treacheries that seem to have originated in the Punic Wars.
Puzo works hard to make his story back-lot mythic. Spartacus led his slave army out of the Cammarata hills to fight the Romans. A skeleton dug out of the rocky soil is said to have belonged to one of Hannibal's elephants. The novel's hero, Turi Guiliano, is a Latin Robin Hood who can recite the Song of Roland and the basic guerilla manual with matching ease. When he is not slipping into Montelepre for his mother's cooking and the attractions of a young widow, Turi muses under starry skies: "He no longer doubted that he had some magnificent destiny before him. He shared the magic of those medieval heroes who could not die until they came to the end of their long story, until they had achieved their great victories."
Guiliano dreams of smashing the power of the "Friends of the Friends." Sicilians, Puzo tells us, never say Mafia, a 10th century Arabic term meaning sanctuary. A thousand years later, the word is dark with irony. Founded to fight foreign oppressors, the organization has come to include the island's most terrible despots. Their fingers can be found in every business and social institution from Palermo To Catania, their hands behind countless murders. Puzo offers swatches of sad history and exotic sociology. Mussolini nearly wiped out the Mafia, but the U.S. Army ensured its comeback when it unlocked Fascist prisons. Kidnapping is a cottage industry, monks fake relics, and omerta, the code of silence, is so pervasive that strangers often cannot get directions to their hotels. Casting a large shadow over all this is Puzo's Don Croce Malo, a model of the fatal charm and intricate cunning of a successful mafioso.
With the exception of Michael Corleone, Turi Guiliano is the shallowest major character in the novel. He reads good books, idealizes justice and respects religion. But if he has a thought subtler than how to trap his enemies, he keeps it to himself. By contrast, Aspanu Pisciotta, the hero's friend and chief lieutenant, has a vivid psychology that eventually sustains Horace's 2,000-year-old observation that "Sicilian tyrants never invented a greater torment than envy."
Unlike a spaghetti western, The sicilian has no one-on-one shootout under a hot sun. Instead, Don Croce and Guiliano are locked in an elaborate melodrama of betrayals within betrayals. Puzo too demonstrates sly moves. His florid descriptions and graphic action scenes guarantee bug-eyed attention while he plants a sardonic fatalism in the heart of his book. One of the rarest commodities in his Sicily is truth ("A source of power, a lever of control, why should anyone give it away?"), while revenge is one of the highest virtues ("On this Catholic island, statutes of a weeping Jesus in every home, Christian forgiveness was contemptible refuge of the coward"). In the New world, far from the color and tradition, Don Corleone takes an even more british view: "Live your life not to be a hero but to remain alive. With time, heroes seem a little foolish."
This is cynical stuff from one of the most "respected" characters in popular fiction. But Puzo knows the mass-market game better than most: Give the angels the good looks, the devils the best lines, and keep the prose cinematic. This element is so strong that the book seems to be only the pupal stage of a story impatient to spread celluloid wings.
SOURCE: A review of The Sicilian, in The National Review, April 5, 1985, pp. 52-4.
[In the following review, Royal notes that in The Sicilian, "Puzo has returned to some of his richer human material that won him critical acclaim for his early novels."]
Generally speaking, the modern novel is not so much an art form as a predicament. When belief in man as the rational animal wavers, as it often does in modern fiction, one or the other of two extremes predominates: angelism (the self-regarding, purely intellectual world of ideologies, doctrinaire feminism, labyrinths, hypertrophied sensitivities, stories within stories within stories) or bestialism (radically purposeless lust and violence). The result is a loss of true imaginative power in spite of the emotional, intellectual, and literary force of a given work. We get many fictions that are, in a word, effete.
You could not apply that term to Mario Puzo's The Sicilian. Puzo's deliberately commercial success with the bestial in The Godfather may lead many readers to assume that his new novel merely continues in the same vein. They would be mistaken. There is no gratuitous sex or violence here. Puzo has returned to some of the richer human material that won him critical acclaim for his early novels. He loses little of his basic animal vigor in The Sicilian, but he uses it in the service of a wider vision than might be expected.
The first sign of this intention is his successful creation of a believable and genuinely good character in Turi Guiliano, the Sicilian of the title. The character Guiliano, based in part on a historical figure, begins his rise to public notoriety in 1943 at the age of twenty. The Fascists have just been driven from Sicily by the American liberation forces, and the Mafia is still weak from Mussolini's harsh repression. Little by little, however, the "Friends of the Friends," as the Mafia was known in Sicily, are beginning to insinuate themselves back into power by scheming to have Mafiosi appointed to replace ousted Fascist politicians. The strict rationing laws of the new government and the black market to which they have given rise are the source of lucrative Mafia rake-offs. Official corruption, the collusion of the Sicilian nobility and the Church, and the shrewdness of Don Croce Malo (the top Mafia leader) are establishing oppression that is at least as bad as anything the Sicilian people have ever experienced.
Guiliano and a boyhood friend are caught one day on a mountain road smuggling cheese, hams, and sausage, in contravention of the rationing laws, for a village engagement party. Smuggling is so common that the authorities usually do not pay much attention to it, but this time a brutal policeman shoots Guiliano—who, however, manages to kill the policeman in spite of a serious wound.
Until this incident Guiliano had been an attractive and charismatic boy. Like many Sicilian children he had been brought up on the romantic exploits of Charlemagne and Roland in the puppet theaters. Guiliano had also been an avid reader of literature, history, and philosophy. Now, in this fluid post-Fascist period, as he hides from the police, his imagination catches fire and he dreams of liberating Sicily from her several exploiters. He hides out in the mountains and becomes a Robin Hood figure.
Not only does he steal from the rich and give to the poor, thereby winning for himself widespread support from the peasants, but he distinguishes himself for the nobility and honor with which he conducts business as a gentlemen bandit. Those he is forced to kill he allows time to make their peace with God; he also often promises support for their widows and children. Those he kidnaps for ransom to help the poor come to admire him. His political maneuvers—like several of his kidnappings—are accompanied by eloquent letters to the newspapers explaining his actions and his aims of freeing the Sicilian people.
His chief opponent in all of this is Don Croce Malo, nick-named the Good Soul. The Don is the subtle but dark intelligence that broods over the island government, the local Church, and even relationships with the government in Rome.
The Mafia in Sicily is not exactly the same as the organization that goes by that name in the United States. In Sicily, the Mafia gradually grew out of the banding together of various leaders, like Guiliano, who sought to protect themselves and the people by establishing a parallel system of justice. Later the Sicilian Mafia itself became an exploiter by using the powers that be as screens for its own operations, though it still served to remedy some wrongs that the system would not right.
Thus, though the Don comes to admire Guiliano and would like to make him heir to the Mafia empire, Guiliano in his idealism wants nothing to do with him. The two become locked in a struggle, probing one another's weaknesses in an elaborate political and moral dance of death.
Stripped to its bare essentials, Puzo's story reads much like many another adventure tale. In many respects it is. Puzo's art is a popular one with few literary pretenses. (One session at this year's Modern Language Association convention in Washington, D.C., was devoted to "The Authority and the Signifier: [Roland] Barthes and Puzo's The Godfather." Let us hope this does not signal the swallowing up of Puzo by the academic amoeba.) But The Sicilian, besides being simply a darned good read for its action and intrigue, has far stronger characterization, deeper insight, and more simple zest than most adventure stories.
For example, all the action takes place against a highly colored landscape that Puzo occasionally succeeds in making evocative. Greeks, Latins, Carthaginians, Arabs, Normans, and others have left their mark on the Sicilian countryside, and it is fitting that the struggle between Guiliano and the Don culminates amidst the ruins of the Acropolis of Selinus, one of the better-known archaeological sites one the island. The setting of the whole novel suggests recurring human tragedy in a long-fallen world.
Puzo's value as a writer does not consist in verbal niceties, but in the vitality he is able to capture in every character and in his whole story. There are some people who will dismiss this novel as "macho" posturing. (Sicilian culture is not macho, but merely possessed of strongly defined familial and social roles.) The same people will probably profess admiration of African art for its primitiveness. The Sicilian is hardly sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought, but neither is it seeking refuge from sterility in the dark gods of the blood. In it the animal and the rational still exist in some kind of vital balance—not a subtle or surprising world, but an essential point of reference nonetheless.
Hilaire Belloc once suggested that if you are looking for the opposite of sentimental, try Villon. If you are looking for a current opposite of effete, try Puzo.
SOURCE: "The Godfather as the World's Most Typical Novel," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 87, No. 2, Spring, 1988, pp. 329-53.
[In the following excerpt, Torgovnick examines the place of The Godfather in Italian-American literature, identifying its conventional bildungsroman and epic themes as a source of its popularity.]
The Godfather appeared in March of 1969 and made publishing history: it rose quickly on the best-seller lists and stayed on those lists for an unprecedented sixty-nine weeks. Newsweek and Time were among the first magazines to publish reviews; the most prestigious and coveted of reviews, in the New York Times Book Review, appeared on 27 April, after Puzo's novel had been on the paper's best-seller list for four weeks and had risen to the number two spot. But the early reviews offered shamefully little insight into the novel, commenting rather simplistically on its portrayal of the Mafia. Time, for example, found the moral of the novel to be that "the Family that preys together, stays together": in other words, "crime pays." Dick Schaap's New York Times review suggested that what Philip "Roth has done for masturbation" in Portnoy's Complaint, number one the week of 27 April, "Puzo has done for murder." Schaap's comparison is off-the-cuff and glib; if we stick with it, however, we can recognize some interesting features of the literary scene in 1969.
Like Roth's book, Puzo's reflected the power of ethnicity in American fiction, with the groups represented more numerous by the late sixties than ever before. Like Roth's book as well, The Godfather occupied the middle ground between what the bookstores call "fiction" and what they call "literature." Coming from the Italian American community, Puzo's novel had in 1969 less support in the publishing and academic establishments, less chance to move into the esteemed category of "literature" than did the novel by the better known Roth. Reviews of Puzo's book—in contrast now to those for Roth—rarely made the front page or a primary position in magazines and newspapers. The New York Times notice appeared on page thirty-four, under the irrelevant caption, "At Cosa Nostra, business was booming." Its lightheartedness insulted the novel, as when the reviewer advised the reader: "Pick a night with nothing good on television, and you'll come out far ahead."
There are several reasons why Roth was indeed "better known," reasons having little to do with abstract ideas of literary quality. Among these, his affiliation with a prestigious university should not be discounted. More significantly, publishers, reviewers, readers, and teachers knew how to classify him: he belongs to the Jewish American literary tradition rather than to the Italian American literary tradition. If you have asked yourself, "the Italian American literary tradition?" you are right to do so.
The Jewish and Italian immigrant experiences were remarkably similar in this country during the twentieth century. Both groups arrived in large numbers during the same decades, with the majority of immigrants from some regions (eastern Europe, southern Italy) rather than others (Germany, northern Italy) which constituted a perceived "elite." They settled by and large in the same northeastern cities, often sharing the same neighborhoods and the same kinds of employment (in, for example, the garment industry). The compatibility of the two cultures continues today, with intermarriages frequent. But their experiences in America very soon began to move at different paces.
Although equally poor, European Jews brought with them a tradition steeped in the value of education and learning. They entered, in the first generations, American systems of higher education, and thus produced, in a relatively short time, esteemed members of the literary professions—teaching, publishing, and writing. Most Italian immigrants, as Puzo notes, "were illiterate, as were their parents before them," their Italian not even that of their native literary tradition. Particularly among Sicilians, there was a suspiciousness of all "systems," including educational systems, and a reluctance to believe that their children could become the "padrones" of the New World. Like Puzo's mother, they felt on their pulses that "Artistic beauty after all could spring only from the seedbed of fine clothes, fine food, luxurious living," and not from the northeast's immigrant communities. An anecdote Puzo tells of his mother illustrates beautifully this side of the Italian American temperament; when Puzo called her to tell her that he was being offered huge sums for The Godfather after years of penury, his mother's only comment was, "Don't tell nobody."
In the first generations, Italian Americans chose a modest version of the American dream: a secure working-class living was preferred to reaching for wealth or upper-middle-class status. "Books" and "learning" were seen as threatening to the solidarity of family necessary for survival in dangerous times. Among many Italian Americans, it was customary for children to leave school at the earliest opportunity, to take jobs in factories and offices, to supplement their parents' incomes. Even the free university system of New York could not tempt many Italian Americans to bypass the immediate financial well-being of their families for a future gain that was, after all, only potential. Italian Americans thus entered higher education and the literary professions later than Jewish Americans; a significant representation of Italian Americans in fields like university teaching, publishing, and writing has emerged only recently. Another way of putting this: Roth has repeatedly, and brilliantly, made much of how what he wrote made him a maverick for many Jews; Puzo's decision to write, quite independent of what he wrote, made him a maverick in his generation, in his mother's vernacular, someone who "had gone off his nut."
In a world where "literary quality" indisputedly announced itself (an Arnoldian utopia), factors like the respective temperaments and economic lives of Jewish and Italian immigrants would be irrelevant. We do not live in such a world. By 1969, without there being any sinister conspiracy, the Jewish American tradition in literature was well-established, prolific, and diverse—as well as published, reviewed, read, discussed, and taught. It was so in part because there was a mechanism, the presence of Jewish Americans in these worlds, a network which made it natural and inevitable that Jewish American literature would interest publishers, teachers, and readers. The Italian American tradition scarcely existed. The availability of novels about the two immigrant experiences can serve as a quick index. How many there are for Jewish American culture! For Italian American culture there is virtually only Puzo's The Fortunate Pilgrim, which sold a mere three thousand copies when first published, despite its power to reveal many aspects of Italian American life.
With all the recent discussion of canon formation, we have become sensitive to the propensity of powerful groups to canonize one of their own—after all, he is most likely to write a work that speaks to them. In an important article, Richard Ohmann has shown that novels chronicling the mid-life crises of business or professional men were the standard subject of writers from the sixties now becoming canonical, writers like John Cheever and John Updike! More radically, he has suggested that their novels appeal to publishers and academicians precisely because their protagonists' dilemmas match those of leaders in the publishing and academic establishment—who are also, by and large, white, middle-class, Protestant, professional, and male.
Within our culture, it is easy to recognize the hegemonic power of WASPs. It is harder, and more delicate, to define the position of Jewish Americans in the literary establishment. A minority? Well, yes—and a vital, invigorating one. And no—a powerful force which has earned (and had to earn) the power it now enjoys. It is thus neither the result of a sinister conspiracy nor the result of pure accident that Cheever's Bullet Park made the first page of the New York Times Book Review in the same issue that Puzo was reviewed on page thirty-four as a kind of joke. It is neither conspiratorial nor accidental that Roth has made that front page several times while Puzo has not, even after the great success of The Godfather.
Ironically, Puzo himself has tended to validate the system by which The Godfather is considered "fiction" rather than "literature." In published comments, he has said that he wrote The Godfather for money and that he "wrote below [his] gifts in that novel." At first, I was inclined to believe him, not just about his having written the book for money (an unchallengeable statement), but about its relatively low literary quality as compared to his other novels. To be sure, there are some very good things in Dark Arena, and The Fortunate Pilgrim is (aside from a slack opening) virtually perfect. The Sicilian is also a fine novel, with sophisticated plays on generic identity. But putting praise for Puzo's other novels aside, there remains the question: what's wrong with The Godfather? Nothing, I think, but its astonishing popularity and financial success. Long a writer accustomed to suffering in the Flaubertian-Joycean tradition, educated in the classics, self-described as "a true believer in art," Puzo could not help but be a little suspicious of, even contemptuous of, his most popular novel. According to high modernism, art isn't supposed to pay, isn't supposed to make the writer's life easier. It follows, then, at some level for Puzo, that The Godfather cannot be art but must be the book he wrote to enable him to continue the pursuit of art. Yet The Godfather is a remarkable achievement. And it can lay claim to being the world's most typical novel, in part because of its vast popularity.
The Godfather gives us the hum and buzz of Italian American culture, quite apart from its portrayal of the distinct and much smaller subculture of the Mafia. Its special importance comes, in part, from its retrospective portrayal of Italian American culture in the decade from 1945 to 1955. Some claim could be made for The Godfather as a historical novel, since the decade it chronicles contains within it competing language systems which are really competing cultural systems in the manner described by Bakhtin. This fidelity to competing languages/cultures accounts for the stylistic diversity of The Godfather. Puzo has been criticized for writing pulpish, purple prose. Actually, style varies considerably in the novel, becoming "flesh-pot prose" only when the novel enters Hollywood Babylon, and veering, at appropriate turns, into the mock epic, the restrained and understated, and the poetic. The decade from 1945 to 1955 was clearly the right decade for Puzo's novel. For it initiated massive changes in Italian American life, changes which made possible The Godfather in 1969, among them the increased presence of Italian Americans in the writing, publishing, and academic worlds. In its turn, that presence has, in part, made serious criticism on Puzo natural and inevitable.
The boom in higher education in the decade following Sputnik would open the world of scholarships and degrees to Italian American children of talent. Lucy Mancini and Michael Corleone before he returns to the family's "business" thus represent the wave of the future. In the novel, that brave new world is welcomed, even courted. Michael Corleone, like his father Vito, desires the Americanization of his children because it will dictate their exit from the subculture of the Mafia; as the first Godfather tells his cohorts, "Some of you have sons who are professors, scientists, musicians, and you are fortunate." What the novel does not say, but what lurks within its pages, is that the process of Americanization, carried to its logical conclusion, would represent the end of Italian American culture as it had existed in the prewar decades. It would mean intermarriages like Michael's with Kay, or, even more typically, like Lucy's with Jules Segal. It would mean moving away from the old neighborhoods, establishing cross-country networks of family that minimize closeness and reduce the frequency of family gatherings for dinner that is a hallmark of Italian American culture. To some extent, then, The Godfather chronicles a threatened moment of Italian American communal existence—still extant in the urban centers of the northeast and (let me not be misunderstood) separate from the Mafia, but threatened by the conditions of American life taken for granted by the majority, assimilating culture in the postwar years.
The Chinese have a curse that runs something like "May you get what you wish." For Vito Corleone, the curse if fulfilled would have meant the passing of his empire from the family as his sons entered the mainstream of American life, becoming part of the world the novel calls the "pezzonovanti," and the sixties called "the military-industrial complex." The dialect and customs of the Sicilians would be displaced first by the Florentine Italian taught in universities and then by the homogenizing forces of American suburbia, so similar whether in New York, California, North Carolina, or the Midwest. Less progressive than Vito Corleone, Puzo's mother was baffled by her son's literary ambitions, and she urged him to work instead for the railroads dominant in his Hell's Kitchen neighborhood. My own mother could not understand my desire to go to college, thinking that I should instead become a secretary, trusting its financial security and tendency to be relinquished upon motherhood, rightly sensing (I see now in retrospect) that college would remove me from her world. The Godfather thus captures a key point of transition for Italian Americans and the ambivalence often surrounding the idea of college until well into the 1960s.
Vito Corleone speaks of sons who are musicians, scientists, professors—not of daughters. His speech reflects a significant feature of Italian American culture also given rich and persistent expression in the novel—its emphasis on male power and on male lines of affiliation. The novel's opening masterfully and subtly establishes the relative spheres of males and females. The Godfather begins not with the direct presentation of the title character but with a series of indirect approaches to him. In this it rivals other narrative examples, like The Odyssey and Madame Bovary, whose openings also delay the presentation of the main character.
A main line of novelistic critics sees the typical theme of the novel, subject to infinite variation, as the theme of the Bildungsroman: the growth or development of a character (usually a young adult) as he/she moves from innocence to experience and comes to share the knowledge always available to the author of the novel. Often, the character learns how to survive in his/her society, how to make the adjustments and compromises a social existence demands. Since the society in which novels take place is almost always bourgeois and capitalist, the protagonist is, in essence, taught how to live as a good bourgeois. Insofar as novels teach readers the same lessons, novels have been powerful instruments of socialization for modern culture. A typical novel, The Godfather includes two such patterns: the first, and more important, involves Michael Corleone, the second Kay Adams. In this bifurcation of the innocence-to-experience theme, and in assigning it to college-age characters of both genders, Puzo, perhaps without knowing it, has made the book a natural for college courses. He has also followed novelistic tradition, since the period of a protagonist's young adulthood forms the typical time span of novels.
A character's movement from innocence to experience can take two forms: the character can authentically change, be at the novel's end different from the way he/she was at the beginning, or the character can uncover his/her authentic self, piercing the veils of self-delusion. Michael's growth follows the second pattern, a pattern shared with such typical characters as Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and Pip in Great Expectations. We know, from the beginning of the novel, that Michael is a favorite son and sense that he is like his father, even before Michael himself perceives the implications of that similarity. The assault on Don Corleone brings out Michael's true colors. Asked to man the phones rather than to become involved in the conflict, Michael "felt awkward, almost ashamed, and he noticed Clemenza and Tessio with faces so carefully impassive that he was sure that they were hiding their contempt."
Significantly, Michael's move into the family requires his adopting the clan's distance from women, his moving away from a relationship of total honesty with Kay. When he calls her after his father's wounding to say he will be late in meeting her, Kay banters in conventional fashion, but Michael cannot reciprocate:
"All right," Kay said. "I'll be waiting. Can I do any Christmas shopping for you? Or anything else?"
"No," Michael said. "Just be ready."
She gave a little excited laugh. "I'll be ready," she said. "Aren't I always?"
"Yes, you are," he said. "That's why you're my best girl."
"I love you," she said. "Can you say it?"
Michael looked at the four hoods sitting in the kitchen. "No," he said. "Tonight, OK?"
Finally free to return to Kay, Michael doesn't tell his brother Sonny his intentions because "Like the Don, Michael never told his real business and now he didn't want to tell Sonny he was seeing Kay Adams. There was no reason not to tell him, it was just habit." Thus, even before the fateful encounter with McCluskey at the hospital and before the decisive murder of Sollozzo and McCluskey, Michael shows favorable signs for his vocation.
The Sicilian interlude in book 6 parallels book 3 in its interruption of the forward action devoted to Vito Corleone's discovery of himself. It is parallel as well in that events in Sicily not only make Michael "understand his father's character and his destiny" but also, with the murder of Apollonia, give him an immediate and tangible need for revenge. Michael signals the fullness of his development by sending this message to his father: "Tell my father I wish to be his son." The message says it all. After it, Michael will lie to Kay (not just about Carlo's murder but also by omitting to tell her of his first marriage), and he will fully enter the Mafia world with the intention of controlling it. His destiny, his uncovering of his true self, is complete.
Once we recognize the importance of the Bildungsroman pattern for Michael Corleone, we can see that the novel's title is fundamentally ambiguous. At the beginning it refers to Vito Corleone, at the end to Michael. In serving as godfather to Carlo Rizzi's son, Michael emblematizes the double face of godfatherhood: protective and nurturing, deadly and cruel. The injury he sustains from McCluskey is the visible sign of this duplicity, a sign with which Michael is reluctant to part, a sign of his entry into family life and of the still unavenged attack's on his father and brother.
Kay's development is, by necessity in this male-centered novel, secondary in importance. She more authentically undergoes a change in personality, moving from a playful, open, liberated college girl into the role of Mafia wife. Oddly, and perhaps a bit subversively, Puzo suggests that the Yankee spirit which founded this nation resembles the Sicilian codes adhered to by the major characters. When Kay and her father face down the investigating policemen, refusing to reveal anything of Michael or to be blackmailed, they practice the equivalent of Sicilian omertà. Most of what she needs to learn is, however, unnatural to Kay. And so she gets a tutor in the novel, in the unlikely figure of Mama Corleone. Mrs. Corleone at first assumes that Kay, quite simply, should forget about Michael. Moved by Kay's love for her son, the mother kisses the girl and advises her to "forget about Mikey, he no the man for you." Kay realizes that, once again, euphemism has been eloquent, "that the young man she had loved was a cold-blooded murderer. And that she had been told by the most unimpeachable source: his mother." But Michael's mother changes her mind about Kay and is instrumental in bringing them together, her change of mind prompted by Kay's fidelity in calling to inquire about her lover and, perhaps, by Mrs. Corleone's concern over the changes in Michael after his return from Sicily. The mother-in-law then becomes the daughter-in-law's guide to Italian American life, teaching her how to fry peppers, how to mesh into the network of visitations to and from relatives' houses on the mall, how to attend church and to pray for her husband's soul.
The murder of Carlo Rizzi signals the secondary quality of female concerns and female evaluations of how things should be done; like Connie, Kay believes (until Hagen shows her otherwise) that Carlo, whatever his role in Sonny's death, should be forgiven. When Kay decides, at the end of the novel, to return to Michael, she accepts her new role in life, her own destiny as someone unable to control the direction of her world. In Godfather II, the filmscript has her change her mind. But I cannot help but feel that that change belies the truth of the original novel. Kay's decision, once made, will be final.
The Godfather's adherence to the Bildungsroman theme is thus strong, though it is not complete. The difference comes in the extent to which, unlike novels in general, The Godfather teaches the protagonists to conform to the rules of a specialized society (the Mafia) rather than to the norms of bourgeois life. Insofar as only the methods and not the ethics of Mafia life differ from mainstream businesses, the difference is trivial. But recognizing the deviation helps point to a final way that The Godfather is a typical novel: its ability to harken back to earlier genres and to incorporate them into the new form.
An important tendency in novel theory is to define the novel by comparison with the narrative genres that preceded it historically: epic and romance. European critics, preeminently Lukàcs, but also Bakhtin, Stanzel, and Goldmann, see the novel as the genre which replaced the epic, a genre linked to a belief in gods and to a view of heroism no longer possible in modern culture. Anglo-American critics have tended, by contrast, to see the novel as "anti-romance," as a countergenre to the various literary incarnations of the romance spirit, with its supreme elevation of love and adventure and its will to a happy ending, however improbable or strained that ending may be. Such definitions of the novel by contrast to earlier narrative genres are, in many ways, quite helpful. But it is perhaps best to recognize that the novel, as a polyphonic genre, contains chords from both of the great narrative genres that preceded it. Historically, it is clear that the novel did replace the epic; but it seems more accurate to see romance as in part swallowed by the novel, in part continuing along separate lines through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
It is also essential to recognize that even our earliest narrative examples send mixed generic signals. Usually classified as epic, for example, The Odyssey seems significantly different from its companion epic, The Iliad. The difference is sometimes explained in that the latter is the epic of war, the second the epic of love. Alternately, The Odyssey is classified as romance (what an "epic of love" would logically be) or as the ur-novel. We don't need to decide the issue of The Odyssey's genre here, but it will be helpful, in seeing the typicality of The Godfather as a novel, to take The Odyssey as an ur-novel, precisely because of its mixture of epic and romance elements. This tactic can be supported by Bakhtin's view of prenovelistic discourse, which sees novelistic narratives as surfacing at various points in literary history, even though the novel as a consistently developing and recognized genre begins in the eighteenth century. Similar in structure and theme to The Odyssey, The Godfather is, in some ways, a version of Homer's work for our time.
The Odyssey begins, not with the introduction of Odysseus, but with the dilemma of his son, Telemachus. Telemachus's imminent manhood has produced a crisis in Ithaca, for he is now eligible to assume his father's throne, left vacant for the long years of Odysseus's absence, and coveted as well by Penelope's many suitors. Having already arranged for Odysseus's return, Athene appears to Telemachus to offer him some key advice. She tells him: "It is a wise son who knows his own father." That formulation signals the identity theme that operates in subtle ways throughout the subsequent narrative.
Athene then advises Telemachus to journey to his father's old comrades, who tell him stories of his father's past that also spur his growth to manhood. Notice already how the father-son theme of The Godfather repeats the pattern of The Odyssey, with substantial niceties such as Michael's journey (parallel to Telemachus's journey) to his father's Sicily as key in his development and Michael's crucial utterance (parallel to Athene's) that he "wishes to be his father's son." Knowing who you are, in both works, means understanding one's father and sharing his ideas and strength. Each son, Telemachus and Michael, needs to demonstrate his similarity to his father in a major test: Telemachus when he shows the ability to string his father's bow and fights by his side; Michael when he is ready to step into the Godfather's role and orchestrate his father's complex plan for revenge.
The middle portion of The Odyssey, the most famous portion, portrays Odysseus's adventures in his ten years of traveling (ten years also being, probably not coincidentally, the time span of The Godfather). In The Odyssey, Odysseus retrospectively narrates these events to his hosts on Phaecaia. Although book 3 of The Godfather does not have the same narrative form, or length, or weight, it shares the quality of retrospective narration and of interrupting the forward motion of the present-day plot, giving the father's history from the past up to the present day.
When Odysseus finally returns to Ithaca, he reveals himself to his son, collaborating with Telemachus about how to avenge himself on Penelope's suitors. This collaboration resembles Don Corleone's collaboration with Michael after Michael's return from Sicily. Both plans involve seeming mildly submissive and disguising intentions until the moment for revenge is ripe. No one—especially Penelope/especially Kay—must know all the details of the plan except for the father and son. In both works, however, key parts of the plan are confided to trusted male associates who have proved their loyalty by a lifetime of service. In each work, the success of the plan constitutes the dramatic climax. A massive slaughter occurs, in which the father/son team achieves victory by superior cunning and strength. No mercy is shown to enemies. In Homer, however, female allies of the enemies are also killed, while in Puzo, "civilian" females are untouchable, part of the Mafia code.
The epic "war" themes accomplished, both works turn to the romance theme of married love—Odysseus is as yet unreconciled to Penelope, Michael's revenge has ruptured his relationship to Kay. In a long and weighty scene, Odysseus negotiates with Penelope, assuring her that he is the husband she has waited for and that he is willing to respect her will and her power. She accepts him, the token of acceptance being the symbolic marriage bed, whose posts sink into the Ithacan earth. The epic ends when Odysseus and Telemachus, having massed to meet the families of the slain suitors, and anticipating a new slaughter, find that slaughter barred. The gods prohibit further revenge and dispense blessed forgetfulness of wrongs done in the past.
Here, The Godfather both follows, and does not follow, the earlier epic. Kay does accept Michael in his new, godlike, imperial role as Godfather, but she negotiates with Hagen, not Michael; the joyous affirmation of marriage in the earlier work is dissipated and shadowed, Kay's role more passive than Penelope's. There are no intervening gods in The Godfather to end the cycle of revenge and to dispense forgetfulness of blood feuds. Michael's power will face other challenges, necessitate other massacres. The future is likely to hold repetition of the past, despite Michael's plan to make the family businesses legitimate.
Like many Greek works (the Orestia and Iliad among them), and like many epics (such as Beowulf), The Odyssey is much concerned with the stage of historical development at which the ties of blood, of family, and the obligations of the blood feud are supplanted by the rules of law, the recognition of communal good, and the subordination of blood feuds to social mechanisms. The Godfather is similarly concerned with a potential transition in Mafia culture—as evidenced by Vito Corleone's long speech to his national confederates—from rule by feuds to rule by the communal good, the Cosa Nostra. In his speech, Corleone advocates making the transition, though his advocacy is spurious. To some extent, however, the Corleone empire has been built by recognizing the coming order and, hence, building a network of power in the legal and governmental systems. The move from family to communal values is, generally, associated with movement from primitive or medieval modes of economic and social organization to modern, capitalist modes. By the symbolic logic of The Odyssey—through which male heros/kings depend on and need female heroines/queens—that movement also requires a merging of male and female principles (implicit as well in the goddess Athene). Often, epic captures the jostling of these value systems against one another. In The Odyssey, the new value systems more successfully replace the old than in The Godfather.
Associated from its origins with the modern bourgeois world order, the novel does not usually directly address the issue of familial versus communal social orders—for that issue has been decided in the past. But novels are not precluded from recording such bumping of cultural systems—indeed, the historical novels of Scott are celebrated for doing so. Moreover, the genre plays with past and present modes of heroism, the rejection of past modes often the lesson that must be learned by the hero of the Bildungsroman. Thus, the parallels to The Odyssey suggest the generic resourcefulness of The Godfather, its ability to evoke, as the backdrop to its central novelistic concerns, grand cultural conflicts that have given rise to earlier narrative genres.
In a very real sense, Michael Corleone wished at the beginning of The Godfather and aspires at the end to the condition granted the novelistic hero—the role of good citizen and businessman. Ironically, if he had become that good citizen and businessman, and if Puzo had waited until Michael had reached middle age to write about him, the novel would have had a better chance—under the prevailing interest in middle-class businessmen as heroes of novels—of being not just a best-seller, but a novel recognized as "literature" and, ultimately, a canonical text. Instead, Michael gets a role that fits the model of good citizen and businessman only within the microcosmic world of the Mafia and which is tinged (in its power over blood, not just money) but not recuperated by earlier, epic patterns of heroism. And Puzo gets a book that sells well but has not, as yet, become canonical. Those of us who take novels seriously ought to give it a second look. For in its generic reach, in its exploration of the Bildungsroman theme, in its revelation of competing language and cultural systems, and in its posing of the issue of popular versus high art, The Godfather can clearly be shown to be one of the world's most typical novels.
SOURCE: "A Bad Week for the President," in The New York Times Book Review, January 13, 1991, p. 7.
[In the following review, Galbraith provides a tempered assessment of The Fourth K, praising Puzo's narrative ability but finding the novel's plot implausible.]
Some 30 years ago in India, Edward Durrell Stone designed a handsome residence for the American Ambassador, in which my wife and I were the first residents. On occasion, passers-by wandered in to look at the rather magnificent reception area; once, after a somewhat questionable political conversation with a high Indian official, we walked out of my study to find that another and somewhat antipathetic politician had strolled in to listen to our conversation through the open grillwork that was a feature of Stone's architecture.
In recent times back in India I found the whole house and embassy completely surrounded by high, formidable and very ugly concrete walls. Entry now requires notification and identification paralleling that needed for a journey to see Saddam Hussein, and a small letter that was sent to me in care of the embassy came with an imprint saying that it had been X-rayed for detection of possible explosives.
It is this trend toward protection against terrorist violence, continued a few years into the future, that Mario Puzo seeks to make plausible in his latest novel, The Fourth K. The increase in terrorist activity as well as all the other violent behavior of our time has continued. So also have the responding defenses, and especially those surrounding the President of the United States. In Mr. Puzo's novel, he lives in a kind of iron box that has been added as another story to the White House Secret Service men alone have access—they double as servants—and they have now been united with the Federal Bureau of Investigation under the relentless attention of the Attorney General. The cost of protecting the Presidential person is $100 million annually and the enterprise employs 10,000 men, although their cost does provoke some passing comment.
The President so enclosed is Francis Xavier Kennedy, a member of a cadet branch of the noted Kennedy family. I assume that he is The Fourth K, John, Robert and Edward having gone before, but Mr. Puzo's imagination being what it is, it could be Henry Kissinger, Henry the K, who some-how had got into the chain. There is that tendency to sanguinary action. And with Mr. Puzo anything is possible.
His imagination is indeed extreme, and some will think uncontrolled. Francis Xavier, whose resemblance to his noted precursors is not extreme, has been swept into office just as his lovely and loving wife dies, and he is sustained as to family only by his beautiful and independent college-age daughter, Theresa. He has a fine if largely undisclosed social agenda but he cannot do anything about it, for, in a further projection from our time, a small coterie of incredibly rich reactionaries, the Socrates Club, has bought up the entire Congress, which has lost to its paymasters all capacity for independent action.
However, in the most portentous of all developments, it is terrorism that has gone to a new dimension. On one otherwise pleasant spring day, a great terrorist network with powerful but rather indistinct revolutionary aims arranges to shoot the Pope, hijack the plane carrying the President's daughter, take it to an Arabian emirate and shoot her dead. Her fellow passengers become hostages. A bad week.
Francis Xavier Kennedy responds in a forthright way, one that will rejoice all partisans of surgical and even ordinary bomb strikes: he orders the emigrate to release the hostages and surrender those responsible; if they don't, he will destroy the capital, with the further promise of destroying the country as a whole. In the end the city is destroyed, although the President, in a thoughtful gesture, does tell the inhabitants that they should get out of town.
Meanwhile, there has been an interesting development back in Washington. Popular opinion is with Kennedy; the rich controllers of the Congress, those Socrates men, are, however, adverse. Among other things one of the club's members has a $50 billion investment in that emirate, and even he does not take such sums lightly. Accordingly they arrange the impeachment of Kennedy, which takes only a matter of a few hours. Richard Nixon would be impressed.
The story goes on from there with a homemade atomic bomb exploding around Times Square, a great electoral recovery by Kennedy and yet more. But these matters I must leave to the reader to explore in detail. A summary could be unfair to the author; it might make the whole story seem a bit far out.
I have said that Mr. Puzo has based his novel on a rather large leap from current disorders and disasters. This is not confined to terrorism, impeachment and related dissonance. Mr. Puzo is also alert to present tendencies in language and sex. His characters, high and low, inject metaphorical defecation and fornication into their speech at approximately one-sentence intervals. And in the great tradition set by John O'Hara, he regularly arrests the narrative and puts his people in bed with all appropriate contortion and on at least one occasion, as O'Hara was also said to do, without their previously having shaken hands. That happens during a long sequence in Hollywood that seems not to contribute appreciably to the plot but does, one suspects, make use of the author's observations there while his earlier, best-selling work, the Godfather saga, made it to the screen.
As I hope I have sufficiently made clear, I am impressed by the author's imagination—his ability to take the worst in present life and make it worse. I am somewhat less impressed by the plausibility of his prospect. In that lightning impeachment and, I think, in quite a number of other matters, including the homemade bomb in New York, it goes well beyond the range of reasonable probability. Nor, his considerable narrative skill notwithstanding, does Mr. Puzo succeed in making other developments seem terribly likely. From this I take some comfort.
SOURCE: "Blood in the Marketplace: The Business of Family in The Godfather Narratives," in Ethnic Passages: Literary Immigrants in Twentieth-Century America, University of Chicago Press, 1993, pp. 18-52.
[In the following excerpt, Ferraro examines the "business of family" in The Godfather and the godfather figure as a cultural icon.]
In his 1969 blockbuster The Godfather, Mario Puzo presented an image of the Mafia that has become commonplace in American popular culture. Since that time, we have taken for granted that the Mafia operates as a consortium of illegitimate businesses, structured along family lines, with a familial patriarch or "godfather" as the chief executive officer of each syndicate. Puzo's version of the Mafia fuses into one icon the realms of family and economy, of Southern Italian ethnicity and big-time American capitalism, of blood and the marketplace. "Blood" refers to the violence of organized crime. "Blood" also refers to the familial clan and its extension through the symbolic system of the compare, or "cogodparenthood." In The Godfather, the representation of the Mafia fuses ethnic tribalism with the all-American pursuit of wealth and power. Since its publication, we have regarded this business of family in The Godfather, as a figment of Puzo's opportunistic imagination, which it remains in part. But the business of family in Puzo's Mafia is also a provocative revision of accepted notions of what ethnicity is and how it works—the new ethnic sociology in popular literary form.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was a short outburst of scholarly interest in The Godfather and its myriad offspring. A consensus about the meaning of the popularity of this saga emerges from the books and essays of Fredric Jameson, Eric Hobsbawn, John Cawelti, and John Sutherland. The portrayal of the Corleone family collective allows post-Vietnam-era Americans to fantasize about the glory days of "closely knit traditional authority." The portrayal of the power and destructive greed of the Mafia chieftains allows them to vent their rage at "the managerial elite who hold the reins of corporate power and use it for their own benefit." The themes of family and business, in each instance, are disengaged from one another. As Jameson puts it, on the one hand, the ethnic family imagery satisfies "a Utopian longing" for collectivity, while, on the other hand, "the substitution of crime for big business" is the "ideological function" of the narrative. In such standard treatments, Puzo's narrative is regarded as a brilliant (or brilliantly lucky) instance of satisfying two disparate appetites with a single symbol. This perspective, formulated in the late 1970s, seems to have settled the issue of the popularity of the novel.
I want to reopen that issue. We need to return to The Godfather because we have too easily dismissed its representation of the Mafia as a two-part fantasy. Of course, The Godfather is not reliable as a roman à clef or a historical novel: Puzo's details are fuzzy, mixed up, and much exaggerated. "There was things he stretched," as Huck Finn would put it, and everyone knows it. But critics have been too ready to accept his major sociological premise—that family and business work in tandem—as pure mythology. I would argue that the importance of The Godfather lies not in its creation of a double mythology but in the way that it takes the fusion of kinship and capitalist enterprise seriously. Its cultural significance lies not in the simultaneous appeals of "family" and "business" imagery but rather in the appeal of an actual structural simultaneity, the business of family. If we fail to pause long enough to consider its surface narrative, we underestimate not only the strategies of the novel but the insights and intuitions of its huge audience as well.
Readers have underestimated the business of family because little in traditional theories of the family, ethnicity, and advanced capitalism has prepared them to recognize it. In both scholarly and popular treatments, ethnic culture and extended kinship are interpreted as barriers to successfully negotiating the mobility ladder, particularly its upper rungs. Southern Italian immigrants and their descendants have long been thought to exemplify the principle that the more clannish an ethnic group, the slower its assimilation and economic advancement. Herbert Gans's Urban Villagers, Virginia Yans-McLaughlin's Family and Community, Thomas Kessner's Golden Door, and Thomas Sowell's Ethnic America essentially update the social work perspectives of such writers as Phyllis H. Williams and Leonard Covello. In 1944, Covello wrote, "Any social consciousness of Italo-Americans within 'Little Italies' appertains primarily to sharing and adhering to the family tradition as the main motif of their philosophy of life…. The retention of this cultural 'basis' is essentially the source of their retarded adjustment." But this long-standing tradition of identifying the Italian family structure as a dysfunctional survival runs aground when it comes to the Mafia.
Historians and sociologists attest to the difficulty of interpreting the Mafia in terms of a linear model of assimilation and upward mobility. All commentators recognize that the Mafia was not simply transported here: it arose from the polyethnic immigrant streets rather than passing from father to son; Prohibition was the major factor in shaping its growth. In A Family Business, sociologist Francis A. J. Ianni concedes these points, only to stress the family structure of the syndicates and the origin of this familialism in Southern Italy. The Lupullo crime organization "feels like a kinship-structured group; familialism founded it and is still its stock in trade. One senses immediately not only the strength of the bond, but the inability of members to see any morality or social order larger than their own." Ianni's research tempts him into abandoning the tradition of placing ethnic phenomena on a linear continuum running from Old World marginality to New World centrality. His research supports and his analysis anticipates, without quite articulating, the cutting edge of ethnic theory.
Scholars in a number of fields are working to change the way we think about ethnicity, ethnic groups, and ethnic culture. In identifying the social bases of ethnicity, theorists are shifting their emphasis from intergenerational transmission to arenas of conflict in complex societies. They argue that we need to examine ethnic cultures not as Old World survivals (whatever their roots) but as improvised strategies to deal with the unequal distribution of wealth, power, and status. In this light, ethnic groups include not only socially marginal peoples but any group that uses symbols of common descent and tradition to create or to maintain power. From a historian's perspective, European family structures and traditions do not necessarily dissolve in the face of capitalism but rather, as they have always done, evolve to meet its changing needs.
Anthropologist Abner Cohen conceives of ethnic groups as "interest groups" in which ethnic symbols function in lieu of more formal structures, such as the law. When he speaks of the symbolic apparatus of ethnicity, he refers to the emphasis on common history and tradition, endogamy and social boundary maintenance, religion and ritual, and everyday encoded behavior, including "accent, manner of speech, etiquette, style of joking, play" and so forth, that is, the rhetoric and codes of "blood." As Cohen explains, the symbolic apparatus of ethnicity incites genuine loyalty and emotion, the power and idiosyncrasy of which cannot be underestimated. But the apparatus also serves utilitarian purposes within society at large, including those of the economic marketplace. In many of our most familiar examples, the function of ethnic ritual is primarily defensive, to organize a group on the margins of society, but the uses of ethnicity can be quite aggressive as well. The Italian-American Mafia is a case in point. As Ianni and others have demonstrated, it is the ethos of ethnic solidarity that puts the organization into Italian-American organized crime.
In her discussion of The Godfather, Rose Basile Green comes the closest of any critic to unpacking what she calls the "socioeconomic ethnic image" of the Corleone crime syndicate. Unlike almost everyone else, Green takes seriously Puzo's portrayal of the syndicates—not as historical fact about actual gangsters but as a treatise (however romanticized) "dealing with the contemporary strategy of gaining and securing power." Yet Green's analysis splits into typical parallel paths: crime as a means for social mobility versus the family as a locus of traditional Southern Italian responsibility. Although Green identifies "a subtle line between personal interest and structural power," she, too, fails to make the strongest connection between the private family life ascribed to Don Corleone and the illegitimate enterprise he heads. When Green says that The Godfather explores "the contemporary strategy of gaining and securing power," she means the tactics of bribery, intimidation, the brokerage of votes, intergang warfare, and so forth that Don Corleone uses to conduct business outside the confines of his own organization. But the most noteworthy device for gaining and securing power in Puzo's depiction is internal to the Corleone syndicate: it is not a gun or payola, but, quite simply, that mystified entity, the "Southern Italian family."
In narrating The Godfather, Puzo adopts the familiar role of cultural interpreter, mediating between outside readers and a secret ethnic society. Puzo's agenda, implicit yet universally understood, is to explain why Sicilian Americans have made such good criminals. The answer, generally speaking, is their cult of family honor. The Corleones believe, with a kind of feudal fervor, in patriarchy, patronage, and protection. The Godfather is saturated with the imagery of paternity, family, and intimate friendship; with the rhetoric of respect, loyalty, and the code of silence; with references to Sicilian blood and the machismo attributed to it; with the social events—weddings, christenings, funerals, meals, and so forth—that embody the culture of family honor. The business of crime is always interlaced with the responsibilities of family. In the film, for instance, Clemenza frets over a request from his wife Eve as he presides over the execution of Paulie Gatto: "Don't forget the cannoli!" Don Vito himself is a true believer in the mutual obligations of kinfolk. He seeks both to expand his wealth and power to protect his dependents and to make his protection available to more and more people. He recruits from within his family to keep the business "all in the family" for the family's sake. "It was at this time that the Don got the idea that he ran his world far better than his enemies ran the greater world which continually obstructed his path." At the same time, "not his best friends would have called Don Corleone a saint from heaven"; there is always "some self-interest" in his generosity. For everyone recognizes the wisdom of family honor, Corleone's Honor, given the special exigencies of operating in a big way in an outlawed underground economy.
In his analysis of the ethnic group as an interest group, Cohen stresses the growth potential wherever there is a sector of an economy that has not been organized formally:
Even in the advanced liberal industrial societies there are some structural conditions under which an interest group cannot organize itself on formal lines. Its formal organization may be opposed by the state or by other groups within the state, or may be incompatible with some important principles in the society; or the interests it represents may be newly developed and not yet articulated in terms of a formal organization and accommodated with the formal structure of the society. Under these conditions the group will articulate its organization on informal lines, making use of the kinship, friendship, ritual, ceremonial, and other symbolic activities that are implicit in what is known as style of life.
The ethnic ethos means sticking together, respecting the authority of the group rather than that of outsiders, defending the group's turf, and abiding by tradition. The reasoning comes full circle, for tradition is equated with group solidarity. The family is the core element of the group and its most powerful symbol. Under appropriate conditions, the ethos of ethnicity is by no means anachronistic in late capitalism, no matter how rooted such values might be in the history of particular groups. Wherever ethnicity can facilitate enterprise, ethnicity as a system can be said to be one of the primary motors of capitalism, not its antithesis. Focusing on the old moneyed elite of London, Cohen has argued that ethnicity functions among the privileged as well as among the impoverished, among "core" castes as well as among racial and national minorities. In another case study, historian Peter Dobkin Hall implicates family and tradition in the mercantile practices of Massachusetts elites in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As both Cohen and Hall contend, a precondition for capitalized ethnicity is a legal vacuum. I would add to this a corollary based on the history of the Mafia: the desire to engage in enterprise, not simply in a vacuum (where law and formal arrangements are lacking) but in an economic zone outside the law and opposed to formal arrangements, makes some form of family and ethnic organization a necessity.
The seemingly feudal, deeply internalized ethos of family honor cements individuals together in American crime, structuring syndicates and giving them their aggrandizing momentum. Loyalty and devotion to group honor are the values according to which individuals are motivated, recruited, judged, and policed in the Mafia. These values are especially effective at binding criminals together and at making criminals out of those not otherwise drawn to the outlaw life. These values surfaced in the United States when Prohibition created an enormous unorganized sector of the national economy, legally proscribed but driven by immense appetites and the willingness of legal institutions to play along, especially for a price. Such values are also necessary to hold together the large-scale enterprises not structured or protected by law, which Prohibition created but which survived after it: rackets devoted to gambling, loan-sharking, prostitution, various forms of extortion, and eventually drugs. In legitimate business, a prized executive who sells himself and perhaps a secret or two to another company is written off as an unexpected operation loss. A capo-regime who becomes a stool pigeon can bring the whole system down. The ideologies of tradition and group solidarity, principally of the family, are ideal for rationalizing crime syndicates in both senses of the word "rationalize": ideal for organizing them because such ideologies are ideal for justifying their existence and their hold over their members.
The Godfather would warrant attention from scholars for the way it depicts an ethnic subculture that functions as an interest group even if, like Puzo's Fortunate Pilgrim (1964), it had disappeared into obscurity upon publication. But the novel has had a major impact on popular culture. The figure of "the godfather" outstrips all but the most ubiquitous cultural symbols, falling somewhere between Huckleberry Finn and Superman, better known, perhaps, than Uncle Sam himself. By 1971, when the first film was released, there were over one million hardcover copies of the book in circulation—multiple copies in every library in every town in America—and at least ten million more paperbacks. Historically, the reading of the novel framed the film; not, as in academic criticism, the other way around. By the early 1980s, the book had become the best-selling novel in history, and it continues to sell steadily even outside the United States.
The most immediate spin-offs of the novel were the two films, versions of those films rearranged for television, and the video format, in which the two films plus outtakes are combined as The Godfather Epic. By 1975, 260 more books on the Mafia theme had been released, principally of the hard-boiled variety. In 1984, Puzo himself tried again with his fictional account of Salvatore Giuliano, The Sicilian. Ethnicity in crime has figured in many major films, including The Cotton Club (co-scripted by Coppola, Puzo, and William Kennedy), The Gang Who Couldn't Shoot Straight, Broadway Danny Rose, Heart of the Dragon, Scarface, Once upon a Time in America, Miller's Crossing, and Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese's reply to Coppola. During the 1980s, the popularity of family-dynasty sagas, especially in their many ethnic varieties, can be traced in part to Puzo's model. Most telling has been the ceaseless production of Godfather clones, emphasizing the fusion of family and crime. Now a genre of its own, the proliferation includes (auto)biographical works such as Gay Talese's Honor Thy Father, Joseph Bonanno's Man of Honor, and Antoinette Giancana's Mafia Princess; novels such as Vincent Patrick's Family Business and Richard Condon's trilogy of the Prizzi family; and a legion of films and teleplays, including "Our Family Honor" (ABC's ill-fated attempt to combine Italian-American gangsters with Irish-American cops), Married to the Mob (which picks up on the feminist themes in Condon), the "Wiseguy" series (an affecting drama of homoerotic underpinnings in the mob), China Girl (Abel Ferrara restages Romeo and Juliet between Italian and Chinese mobsters), and The Freshman (Brando parodies his portrayal of Vito Corleone). The Godfather: Part III was released on Christmas in 1990.
What are we to make of the lasting fascination with The Godfather? Since its appearance, scholars have recognized The Godfather as an artifact of the "new ethnicity." The timing of the novel and its immediate offspring, from publication of the novel in 1969 to the television miniseries in the late 1970s, corresponds to an upturn in American embracing ethnic identity. This celebration included not only groups that were by and large still marginal—Native Americans, the descendants of Southern slaves, the newest comers from the Caribbean, the Hispanic Americas, and the Far East—but also the descendants of European immigrants, including the Italians, who were well on their way to middle-class security. Necessarily, the connections drawn between the increased salience of ethnicity and popularity of The Godfather have been premised on construing The Godfather as a two-part fantasy in which family sanctuary and successful corporate enterprise are polar opposites. My reading of The Godfather, which emphasizes the complicity of family and business, calls for a reexamination of the role of the novel in the new ethnic self-consciousness. Both the popularity of The Godfather and the celebration of ethnicity are complex phenomena, reflecting myriad attitudes toward race, class, and gender as well as ethnicity, attitudes that often conflict with one another. By claiming that The Godfather articulates the business of family, I do not wish to mute these other voices but to point the way toward situating the voice of family-business within the larger cacophony of debate.
Scholars such as Jameson and Cawelti, who work within the frame of traditional Godfather interpretation, seek to locate within the novel an anticapitalist energy—not an overt critique so much as an impulse, the energy of a potential critique partially veiled and misdirected. Both critics argue that Puzo portrays the Mafia as the center of a capitalist conspiracy and, simultaneously and irreconcilably, as a refuge from the conspiracy of capitalism. Because Puzo's Mafia functions as "the mirror-image of big business," its brutality provides a focus for anticapitalist anxiety and an outlet for anticapitalist anger. Similarly, the equally powerful image of the family reflects, in Jameson's terms, a "Utopian longing" for escape from the prison house of capitalism. "The 'family' is a fantasy of tribal belongingness," echoes Cawelti, "that protects and supports the individual as opposed to the coldness and indifference of the modern business or government bureaucracy."
In the standard view, the putative double fantasy of The Godfather reflects the misdirected energies of the new ethnicity. The new ethnicity arises from frustration with capitalism yet mutes its resistance in clamor about the decline of the family and traditional values. My analysis of The Godfather suggests we might hesitate before we accept the majority opinion that the family in the novel embodies a refuge from capitalism. We need to question whether a case for the subversive nature of The Godfather can rest on the myth of the Italian-American family as a precapitalist collectivity, particularly when Puzo uses all his forces to undermine this false dichotomy. The representation of the Southern Italian family in The Godfather is not the kind of saccharine portrayal of innocent harmony, the haven in a heartless world, that scholars take as the benchmark of ethnic nostalgia. In The Godfather, capitalism is shown to accommodate, absorb, and indeed accentuate the structures of family and ethnicity. Americans respond to The Godfather because it presents the ethnic family not as a sacrosanct European institution reproduced on the margins of America, but as a fundamental American structure of power, successful and bloodied.
Scholars' desire to identify ethnic piety as a locus of anticapitalist energy has blinded them to the existence of an alliance between the new ethnicity and the procapitalist celebration of the family. This alliance is an insufficiently recognized strain within recent popular culture. At least until World War II, and perhaps into the 1970s, the dominant attitude was that the ethnic family in the United States was incompatible with capitalism, whether ethnicity was favored or not. The rabid Americanizers of the early decades attempted to strip immigrant workers of their familial and cultural loyalties. Many of the immigrants themselves feared that the price of upward mobility might be a loss of family solidarity, even as most relied on the family as a basis for group enterprise and mutual financial support. And intellectuals, who were partly or wholly skeptical of capitalism, based one strand of their critique on the damage that capitalism supposedly inflicted upon traditional family cultures. We hear less and less frequently from these nativist Americanizers and guardians of ethnic tradition, but the nostalgia among scholars remains pervasive nonetheless. The general public, however, increasingly has come to accept and indeed to welcome the idea of compatibility between ethnicity and capitalism. In the case of Italian Americans, for instance, public figures ranging from Lee Iacocca to Geraldine Ferraro and Mario Cuomo emphasize the role family values have played in their own success stories, occasionally stretching our imaginations. Similar rhetoric appears in the reemerging critique of the black family, in the widespread lauding of Asian- and Caribbean-American merchants and their schoolchildren, and in the general appeal for a new American work ethic. In this light, The Godfather helped to introduce and continues to feed upon a strain of American rhetoric and expectation that has reached full salience in the last decade.
Perhaps no artifact of American culture, popular or serious, has made the case for the business of family with quite the force of The Godfather. At no time in United States history has ethnicity enjoyed the vogue that it first achieved in the years of The Godfather's greatest popularity and, in large measure, now maintains. The convergence is no coincidence. While The Godfather does participate in the new ethnicity by celebrating the ethnic family, the Mafia achieves its romantic luster not because Puzo portrays the Italian-American family as a separate sphere lying outside of capitalism, but because the Italian-American family emerges as a potent structure within it. The ethnic family in The Godfather feeds off a market sensibility rather than undermines it. The Corleones can provide protection from the market only because they have mastered it. Indeed, Puzo reaches the height of romance in The Godfather by choosing the Mafia as a model for family enterprise, for illegal family enterprises are capable of growing and expanding to an extent that the structure and regulation of legitimate capitalism ultimately will not support.
If The Godfather does indeed harbor anticapitalist energies, as a thorough reading of the novel might suggest, then perhaps scholars have been looking for that energy in the wrong places. Jameson concludes:
When indeed we reflect on an organized conspiracy against the public, one which reaches into every corner of our daily lives and our political structures to exercise a wanton and genocidal violence at the behest of distant decision-makers and in the name of an abstract conception of profit—surely it is not about the Mafia, but rather about American business itself that we are thinking, American capitalism in its most systematized and computerized, dehumanized, "multinational" and corporate form.
Jameson and the others may be correct in insisting that fascination with The Godfather is motivated, at a deeper level, by anti-capitalist anxiety. But the real scare The Godfather entertains, however much suppressed, is about capitalism, not in its "most systematized and computerized, dehumanized" form but rather in its more "intimate" varieties—ethnic, familial, personal. My reading of The Godfather suggests that if we wish to press charges against capitalism, we must press charges against family and ethnicity, too.
One strand of rhetoric in twentieth-century America, dating as far back as Howells's Hazard of New Fortunes and surveyed by Christopher Lasch in Haven in a Heartless World (1977), urges Americans to go home to escape the specter of capitalism. Professionals often complain about taking work home with them, mentally if not literally. How much more frightening, then, is the alternative Puzo represents: when some Americans go home to papa, they end up confronting the boss. Critics have been quick to interpret the brutality of the Mafia as a symbol for the violence to the individual inherent in capitalism, and to assume that the family represents an escape from that violence. Yet the melodrama of The Godfather implicates the family not only in the success of the Corleone empire but in its cycle of self-destructive violence as well. Michael reintegrates the family business only after burying a brother, murdering a brother-in-law, alienating a sister, and betraying his wife's trust. For Americans who experience family and economy as interwoven pressures (if not actual combined enterprises), the Mafia genre may allow them to focus their resentments, even if, inevitably, a Mafia analogy overstates them. For the cost of employing blood in the marketplace is finding "The Company" at home.
Puzo is often maligned for exploiting the stereotype of Italian-American criminality, which has long been used to discriminate against the general Italian-American population. But, in the final analysis, The Godfather does not so much rehash an old tale, whatever its strands of inheritance, as tell a new one. In The Godfather, Puzo refashions the gangster genre into a vehicle for overturning the traditional antithesis between ties of blood and the American marketplace. He thus transforms the stock character of the Italian-American outlaw into the representative super(business)man, and transforms the lingering image of immigrant huddled masses into the first family of American capitalism.
SOURCE: "Leaving Las Vegas," in The New York Times Book Review, July 28, 1996, p. 9.
[In the following review, Patrick offers praise for The Last Don.]
It is a measure of Mario Puzo's skill that after turning the last page of his rich and ebullient new novel, I was able to remember no fewer than 35 characters and recall clearly their backgrounds, motivations and roles in the convoluted plot and subplots. Indeed, all of Mr. Puzo's formidable storytelling talents are on display throughout The Last Don, a big, fast-paced tale that should provide his fans our most entertaining read since The Godfather. The primary settings are the seats of power and wealth in Las Vegas and Hollywood. The characters are larger-than-life personalities, supremely self-confident risk takers with great appetites for money, sex and power.
The prologue is set on Don Domenico Clericuzio's walled Long Island estate on Palm Sunday in 1965, where the Don is overseeing the double christening of "infants of his own blood": his widowed daughter's son, Dante Clericuzio, and his nephew's son, Croccifixio De Lena, who will come to be called Cross. The main story line is foreshadowed when the two infants are placed side by side in a carriage and fight over a bottle of milk. Meanwhile, the 60-year-old Don, head of the most powerful Mafia family in America, is making arrangements "to relinquish that power, on the surface": "Twenty, thirty years from now," he says, "we will all disappear into the lawful world and enjoy our wealth without fear. Those two infants we are baptizing today will never have to commit our sins and take our risks." So why, then, are they keeping the Bronx Enclave, a bastion of Mafia soldiers? Because, the Don replies, "We hope someday to be saints, but not martyrs."
The story jumps to Las Vegas, 1990, where we meet young Cross De Lena, whose life will change radically when he inherits the dying Alfred Gronevelt's 51 percent stake in the Xanadu Casino Hotel, worth $500 million. Cross has been raised in Las Vegas by his father, Pippi De Lena, unaware until he was 20 of Pippi's position as the "Hammer" of the Clericuzio family, the very best of those qualified men who work on the violent side of the business, men who have made their bones by killing someone.
Groomed by Pippi to succeed him, Cross performs well enough to earn the appellation Little Hammer, but finally does not have what it takes to fill his father's shoes: the ability to kill someone he knows and likes. Dante becomes the Hammer upon Pippi's forced retirement. To complicate Cross's life further, he meets Athena Aquitane, who is being threatened by her psychopathic former husband. She is not only beautiful but one of that rare Hollywood species, a "Bankable Star."
The admonition of Cross's mentor, Alfred Gronevelt—"Money can make you safe in this world, from everything except a beautiful woman"—flashes through his mind but he falls in love nevertheless, and through Athena becomes involved in the movie business despite the Don's longstanding edict against it. The Don had once gained a foothold in Hollywood, which he relinquished with orders to his people to stop all attempts to infiltrate the movie business. "Those people are too clever," he said. "And they have no fear because the rewards are so high. We should have to kill them all and then we would not know how to run the business. It is more complicated than drugs." Clearly this is a world about which Mr. Puzo knows plenty.
His Hollywood characters are outsize and fun. Eli Marrion, the aging, impotent owner of a studio, has always "had a soft spot for writers," but that was because they were so easy to outsmart on their contracts. Marrion's C.E.O. and hatchet man, Bobby Bantz, believes that people who pursue money rather than art are much better and more socially valuable than those artists who try to show the divine spark in human beings. He muses: "Too bad you couldn't make a movie about that. That money was more healing than art and love. But the public would never buy it." A screenwriter recognizes that she has "a twisted affection" for Skippy Deere, a producer, "for his living his life so blatantly in his own self-interest, for his ability to look you in the eye and call you his friend while not caring that you knew he would never perform a true act of friendship. That he was such a cheerful, ardent hypocrite." The freshest observations about movie making are those of Ernest Vail, a once-famous novelist with a bizarre scheme to extract his financial due from Eli Marrion and Bobby Bantz.
All of these people, whose machinations eventually test the cunning of the Don, intersect with Cross at a time when the love of Athena Aquitane holds out to him the promise of a rebirth. The three most influential men in his life, however—his father, Alfred Gronevelt and the old Don—have always warned him that romantic love is "the fatal flaw of great men who would control their worlds." Cross must, in the end, choose between love and power, but first must keep from being killed. Mr. Puzo wraps up his intricate plot with the same ingenuity he exhibits throughout this satisfying novel.
SOURCE: A review of The Last Don, in Time, July 29, 1996, pp. 82-4.
[In the following review, Sheppard asserts that The Last Don shows Puzo "in top form."]
Attention mafianados! at the age of 75, and more than 20 years after Don Vito Corleone and the rest of the Godfather gang abandoned the page for a more glamorous life on the screen, Mario Puzo has started a new family. The Last Don introduces the Clericuzios, a crime clan based in the Bronx, New York, and at the peak of its dark powers. Fortunately, Puzo too is in top form.
"He definitely views this book as a comeback with a vengeance," says his editor, Jonathan Karp. Five years ago, Puzo had quadruple-bypass surgery, followed by a long and gloomy convalescence. His book in progress, a saga about the Borgias, stalled. He thought he might never write again. But transpose the Machiavellian city-state of the Borgias to a fortress in the Bronx, add a summer palace on Long Island and playgrounds in Las Vegas and Hollywood, and—Ecco!—the godfather of Mafia fiction is back in business.
The timing isn't bad either. In summer even serious readers beg to have their disbelief suspended, and The Last Don obliges. It is a headlong entertainment, bubbling over with corruption, betrayals, assassinations, Richter-scale romance and, of course, family values. As in its famous predecessor, unquestioned loyalty, unexamined cash flow and expedient ways of dealing with competition are givens, but this story is set in the '80s—and the slick Clericuzios make the Corleones seem as if they just got off the boat. Gone from the new novel are the entry-level rackets and suspiciously profitable olive-oil business. Instead, family head Don Domenico Clericuzio rules an Exxon of organized crime aided by a son with a degree from Wharton. All the messiness of securing market share is in the past. Years before, the Clericuzios eliminated their main rivals, the Santadios, in one quick and nasty operation. Imagine a rewrite of Romeo and Juliet in which the Capulets throw a wedding and then slaughter the Montagues before dessert.
Imagine anything you like, and in all probability you would still be hard-pressed to keep up with Puzo's devilish invention. There is scarcely a deadly sin or narrative device that he does not plant in his tale. No other popular writer mixes suds and satire with such disarming effect.
The backdrop of The Last Don may be operatic ("God's world was a prison in which man had to earn his daily bread, and his fellow man was a fellow beast, carnivorous and without mercy"), but the setting and characters are commedia dell'arte. Puzo playfully admires the aging Don Dom. "Early on," he writes, "he had been told the famous maxim of American justice, that it was better that a hundred guilty men go free than that one innocent man be punished. Struck almost dumb by the beauty of the concept, he became an ardent patriot."
The novel's unwritten law is that time eventually earns a dispensation for past sins. Tough old pros like Alfred Gronevelt, official owner of the Clericuzio-controlled Xanadu Hotel in Las Vegas, and ruthless Eli Marrion, geriatric head of LoddStone Studios, are, like the Don, the novel's honored guests. Puzo's younger heroes are fewer but conspicuous: the Don's Adonis-like grandnephew Croccifixio ("Cross") De Lena and his film-goddess girlfriend, Athena Aquitane. The book's fools and villains are ruled by passions, impulses and grotesque egos. A degenerate gambler and loudmouthed deadbeat lurches obnoxiously toward his inevitable fate. A hit man, perversely named Dante, wears gaudy Renaissance-style hats and takes too much pleasure in his work.
The marriage of the Mafia and movies provides Puzo with his longest-running gag. In scene after scene the gentlemen from New York and Las Vegas have more ethics and common courtesy than most Hollywood bosses. Puzo, of course, has a few scores to settle. In 1974 he went to the mattresses with Universal Studios over his share of profits for writing Earthquake. The experience probably explains why Bobby Bantz, LoddStone's second in command, is a fulsome repository of foul behavior and slippery business practices. Among them is the willfully complicated gross-and-net game that fattens those on top and leaves naive scriptwriters out of pocket. Puzo takes his vendetta to comic climax when a novelist turned LoddStone hack has to kill himself to get his money. That he sets aside his multiple suicide notes for a rewrite is the sort of black-humor icing that tops off much of this highly anecdotal read.
Three Cheers for Hypocrisy would make a suitable subtitle for The Last Don. "Mario writes about the hearts of thieves and thievery in our hearts. He is fascinated by the moral ironies in life," says Random House editor Karp. Puzo's own are no exception. Before he wrote The Godfather, Puzo spent years vainly trying to gamble his way out of debt. Eventually crime paid, but not in the way he thought it would.
Puzo now keeps his wagering within the family. "He acts as bookie for his children, who will gamble on sports events, and he will take whatever side they don't want," says friend Speed Vogel, a retired businessman and co-author of Joseph Heller's memoir, No Laughing Matter.
Clearly Puzo understands that the best—perhaps only—reason to be conservative is that he has a lot to conserve. "The one great mystery that would never be solved was why very rich men still wasted time gambling to win money they did not need," he writes in The Last Don. One possible reason, he concludes, is that "they did so to hide other vices."
Gluttony does not count. Puzo is a man of large appetites. "He always lived above his means, even when he was younger and before The Godfather," says Vogel. "He always took cabs and smoked expensive cigars even when he couldn't afford it." He also loves to eat, and it shows, although diabetes and bypassed arteries now require some nocalorie alternatives. So Puzo devours books. Volumes of classic and contemporary works fill the house in Bay Shore, Long Island, that he bought with the first money he earned from The Godfather. His daughter Virginia runs the household, and Carol Gino, the nurse who cared for his wife Erika before she died 17 years ago, is his loving companion. Sons Anthony and Eugene look after his financial interests.
"At home," says novelist and longtime friend Josh Greenfeld, "Mario is the Godfather." The author's pals complement his deep family relationships. The group, which includes Vogel, Catch-22 author Heller and novelist and playwright Bruce Jay Friedman, gets together for a boys-only lunch every month. Friedman recalls encountering Puzo's writing when he hired him as an assistant editor for the adventure magazines Male and Men. "You knew that he was a natural and a master storyteller," says Friedman. "I'm just disappointed that I didn't become his agent." Plans for a new book are already under way, and Puzo has told friends that he wants to write the last great Mafia novel. That, God willing, would make Domenico Clericuzio the Next to Last Don.
The novel's unwritten law is that time earns a dispensation for past sins.
SOURCE: "Mario Puzo: The Don of Bestsellers Returns," in Publishers Weekly, July 29, 1996, pp. 64-5.
[In the following interview, Puzo comments on The Godfather, his literary success, and The Last Don.]
Mario Puzo makes us an offer we don't want to refuse. After nearly two decades of public silence, he agrees to grant PW his first interview in 18 years (though a later one, described as "exclusive," appeared last week in New York magazine), in order to talk about his masterful new novel, The Last Don, due out from Random House in August, and about the arc of his writing career. So on an early summer day, we travel out to Long Island under a hot milky sky to sit with him in the second-floor sunroom of his home. Also present is his editor, Jonathan Karp.
"Why did you decide to speak with us?" we ask Puzo after he sets us up with a cold soda.
"I've reformed." After 75 years, Puzo's voice is husky but still sweet with the lilt and rhythms of the Manhattan streets where he grew up. "I figured, give it a try, it'll be a nice experience before I die. Also, I got all these grandchildren, and they don't know that I used to be famous."
Used to be famous? Puzo delights in irony, though he rarely laughs. This stocky man relaxed on a sofa across from us, large, open face topped by thinning gray hair, clad in a pink shirt and white trousers, gripping a big cigar that he never lights, is world famous as the author of seven novels and 10 films—above all, of The Godfather, which, 27 years after publication, has sold, according to Puzo, an astounding 21 million copies. Puzo is proud of what these sales mean. He talks about it within our first five minutes together.
"You know how I know how many copies I sold? I got the money. Nobody said I just sold books. I got money. Statistics, they don't mean anything unless you get the money."
The money has bought Puzo a rambling house in a fancy neighborhood, ringed by lawns and tall trees, sided by a tennis court, filled with fine furniture, plush rugs and several huge TV sets. But a fence shields the house from public view, and the computer shining on the desk nearby is used not by him but by his longtime companion, author Carol Gino. Puzo writes by hand, and at an old typewriter. Instead of servants or a secretary, he employs two of his five children, all now grown. Here, it seems, is a man who cares passionately about money but who doesn't flaunt it.
Money—its lure and power—dominates Puzo's work. "To me," he says, "money is the focus of everything you see people do." It's not too surprising to hear this from a man born to illiterate Italian immigrant parents in Hell's Kitchen, whose father abandoned his wife and five kids when Puzo was 12. "I knew I lived in poverty," Puzo says. "That was one of the things that helped me to write. It was my way out."
The ambition to write his way out carried Puzo through high school. World War II erupted when he was 21, taking him to Germany, where he met and married the mother of his children, now deceased. In the late 1940s, Puzo returned to Manhattan for night classes at the New School. "I was studying literature, trying to be a writer," he reminisces. "Since I was a veteran, I got 120 bucks a month for going to school. So I was going for the 120 bucks. But it was a really wonderful education."
During the day, Puzo worked as a federal employee. In his spare time, he wrote The Dark Arena, a literary melodrama set in occupied Germany, published by Random House in 1955. The novel received glowing reviews but sank in sales. So did Puzo's heart. Determined to make it as an artist, he began an autobiographical novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim. Shortly before its 1964 publication by Atheneum, he quit the civil service to edit men's adventure magazines. A new job, a new book, a new publisher; but, again, strong reviews drew only weak sales. Now Puzo despaired. "I didn't make money on it. When that happens, you get such a feeling of self-loathing. That you've done something valuable but nobody values it. So you despise yourself. And you despise the public."
He saw only one solution, he recalls. "I said, 'well, I gotta write a book that people will buy.'" As he speaks these words, Puzo's hands, always in motion, swoop like birds of prey. Otherwise, he sits nearly motionless. His eyes glint dark and lustrous from behind wide-framed glasses.
The book was The Godfather. When Atheneum rejected Puzo's outline, he brought it to Putnam, where, in 1965, editor Bill Targ advanced him $5000. "I'd never heard of so much money in my life," he says. "I mean, it was mind-boggling." More mind-boggling still was the novel's success. At the top of national bestseller lists for much of 1969, its publication year, it became the top-selling novel of the 1970s and, according to Putnam, of all time. It proved a cultural watershed, bringing the Mafia to national attention and spawning generations of mob novels, influencing writers from Elmore Leonard to Eugene Izzi.
The Godfather swept sea changes into Puzo's professional and personal life as well. He acquired an agent, Candida Donadio, who still represents him. He added wealth to fame when Putnam sold paperback rights to Fawcett for $410,000. And he launched his second career, as a screenwriter. "I refused to write the script of The Godfather at first," Puzo remembers. "Then the producer, Al Ruddy, came to New York with his wife. They took me to lunch at the Plaza. I was prepared to say no again. But I was charmed by Ruddy's wife, because she had a poodle in her handbag. She opens the handbag and out pops this dog. And that was so charming I said yes."
The two Oscars Puzo has won, for his screenplays of The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II gleam on the mantelpiece in his living room. He has scripted eight other films, most notably The Godfather: Part III, the first two Superman films, Earthquake and The Cotton Club. Puzo reveals that he's also written a screenplay that was never filmed, based on a Zane Grey novel "like a western Godfather." Michael Eisner, then head of Paramount, rejected it because, Puzo says, he hated the desert. "I don't like sand in a movie," Eisner reportedly told Puzo.
Talking about screenwriting, again Puzo refers to the money. "The writers today," he says, "we're all sort of dopes. Everybody should rush out to Hollywood and get the easy money." To transform a novel into a screenplay, he adds, "you figure out what the primary story is. All the other stories, you lop 'em off like they lop off the fat on a piece of pork."
His newfound success granted Puzo freedom to publish what he wanted—in 1972, the essays and stories of The Godfather Papers; in 1978, still with Bill Targ at Putnam, Fools Die, a novel about Las Vegas, Hollywood and the New York publishing industry. Paperback rights sold to Fawcett for a then-record $2.2 million, but the book failed to match The Godfather's sales or influence. Six years later, Puzo returned with The Sicilian. Edited by Joni Evans at Linden Press, the novel briefly brought back Michael Corleone of Godfather fame in its tale of a Sicilian brigand. It was the top-selling hardcover fiction of 1985, but Puzo's next book, from Random House, The Fourth K, a thriller that placed a future Kennedy in the White House, fared relatively poorly.
"I was a young assistant editor at the time," interjects Karp. "That's how I met Mario. I don't think that people got the political irony of it at all." For that, Puzo takes the blame. "I realized from the failure of the book that there are certain rules that you can't break. I broke them with Kennedy as the hero when I turned him into a guy who would have been a dictator." Puzo himself can charm, and his fierce honesty is part of his charm.
The Fourth K was almost Puzo's last book. In January 1991, its publication month, he nearly died. Already diabetic, he was stricken with heart trouble and underwent an emergency quadruple bypass. Puzo didn't write during the next two years. Instead, he researched a novel on the Borgias but decided not to write it. "The trouble," he explains, "is in showing the Borgia Pope as he was. That would make such an uproar, who knows if you want to get into that? So I went from the Borgia book to writing a Hollywood and Vegas book. And the Clericuzio popped up."
The Clericuzio are the hypnotic dark heart of The Last Don, the most powerful Mafia family in the country. Their chief is Don Domenico Clericuzio, whose great age and power is mirrored in two other male characters, a casino owner and a Hollywood studio chief. Each stands nearly above the novel's wild swirl of deals, betrayals, violence; yet each will order the snuffing of a career or a life as necessary. We ask Puzo if his own years and brush with death influenced the book. "I think so," he says. "The character of Don Clericuzio, for instance. The way he can isolate himself from emotion, where he arranges the killing of his own…. It's something I can do now. You reach a certain age where you're quite capable of great sin."
Puzo's own age becomes more apparent as we continue to speak. He is game to talk as long as we wish, and he's ever ready with ideas and opinions, but his voice loses zest as the afternoon passes. The air in the room, warm when we came in, grows close.
Puzo's maturity elevates The Last Don, a novel as grand and complex as any he has written. It embodies a lifetime of experience or interest in Hollywood, Vegas, the mob—and, above all, in money. "I think The Last Don is an ambitious book," he says. "All through it I'm trying to show a strict correlation between the criminal persona and an industrial criminal persona. And that the crucial element is money."
It becomes clear as we speak that Puzo's obsession with money isn't about greed. Early in his life, it was about escape from poverty; in middle age, about public validation of his talent. Now, money is a force to be captured in his art—and one that to him raises a moral question. "What is the central thing to most people?" Puzo asks us. "Earning a living, earning your daily bread. If these guys didn't commit these crimes, they'd be at the mercy of employers, they'd be at the mercy of economics. They're asserting their own power over their fate." Yet Puzo bans morals from his fiction. Though he has taken flak for not condemning characters—Don Corleone especially—who act like monsters, he frowns on those who judge their own creations. "If you're a true novelist, your first duty is to tell a story; if you want to moralize, write nonfiction, philosophy, whatever."
What will follow The Last Don? Karp mentions that Puzo recently got a call from [actor Marlon] Brando, who, Puzo, explains, "wants to be in The Last Don if it's a feature film, but he won't do TV." And film rights have been sold to TV, Puzo announces: "The movie business didn't bid high enough." Puzo has time to write, since he lives alone. But there is the allure of reading, "the only pleasure in life that hasn't disappointed me," and he works in fits and starts. "I'm an essentially lazy writer," he confesses. "A lot of my writing schedule is laying on the sofa, staring up at the ceiling." Still, he has plans. A film of The Godfather: Part IV is "a possibility." He's working on a screenplay of Gino's first book, The Nurse's Story. He may yet write the Borgia book, and he's contemplating an epic historical about the Mafia. "I write a book about the 700 years of the Mafia, then I drop dead," he jokes. "Everybody's had enough of the Mafia, everybody's had enough of me."
Whether time will rate Puzo as a great writer or less remains to be seen. He has his Oscars but no major literary prizes, no Pulitzer. "I would have loved to have won a Pulitzer." he says. "But if you go back over the books that won, are they read today? I think the test is, do people keep reading them? Now it's, what, 27 years since The Godfather? I still get a royalty check from England, for a substantial amount. Jesus Christ, 27 years, selling a book, that's something."
Yes it is, we agree as we rise to leave. Puzo's hand is dry as we shake it goodbye. He has trouble with stairs, he says, so he can't see us out. Downstairs, we admire those Oscars, testament to Puzo's storytelling prowess, to the remarkable life he has led. We flash to The Last Don, and we think of how marvelous it is that this writer, age be damned, has once more put that talent and life's wisdom on the page, and this time in fullest flower.
SOURCE: "The Middle Mythic Mode: Godfathers as Heroes, Variations on a Figure," in Italian Signs, American Streets: The Evolution of Italian American Narrative, Duke University Press, 1996, pp. 86-118.
[In the following excerpt, Gardaphe examines elements of myth and cultural assimilation in The Godfather, contending that it "has done more to create a national consciousness of the Italian American experience than any work of fiction or nonfiction published before or since."]
Three narratives will represent the middle mythic period of Italian American narrative: Mario Puzo's The Godfather (1969), Gay Talese's Honor Thy Father (1971), and Giose Rimanelli's Benedetta in Guysterland (1993). Within these three works the figure of the godfather surfaces as a direct response to the attempts of Italian immigrants to "make America." Puzo's romanticized version, Talese's historical version, and Rimanelli's parodic version all represent variations on the heroic theme this figure has come to embody. Besides containing the characteristics of the mythic mode that I outlined earlier, these three texts also reveal an intertextual relationship that until recently was a rare phenomenon in Italian American literature.
Interpretations of the Italian American family take on new dimensions in these three books. The image of the honest, hardworking Italian immigrant family portrayed by Fante, di Donato, and Mangione as a community united against an alien and often hostile outside world is abandoned for the portrayal of the family able to gain the power through any means—legal or illegal—necessary to control their environment. This control is represented through the figure of the godfather. Richard Gambino says that the godparent belongs to the second most important category in the hierarchy of Italian family order:
From top to bottom: 1. family members, "blood of my blood," 2. compari and padrini and their female equivalents, commare and madrine ("godparents," a relationship that was by no means limited to those who were godparents in the Catholic religious rites … and which would better translate as "intimate friends" and "venerated elders"), 3. amici or amici di cappello (friends to whom one tipped one's hat or said "hello"), meaning those whose family status demanded respect, and 4. stranieri (strangers), a designation for all others.
These levels are circles or buffers designed to protect the family. With the nuclear family in the center, surrounded by the extended family, then by the compari and commari, and then the amici, the order of the family works like the walls around a castle. Compareggio (godparenthood) ranks next to the family because it signifies a trust stronger than any other relationship that unrelated Italians can share. Traditionally, godparents were chosen from the circle outside the "blood" family for the purposes of cementing a family like bond between those involved. Godparents were selected on the basis of their ability to contribute to the protection and well-being of the family, and selection was often a strategic, political decision.
In America, especially during the Great Depression, those who held power in the Italian American communities (even gangsters) were besieged with requests to be godfathers or godmothers to the children of those who lacked access to power. It was not uncommon for a single individual to be a godparent in a number of families. As an honor to the godparent for accepting the responsibility of compareggio, the godfather or godmother's first name often became the second name of the child at Baptism or the third name of the child at confirmation. The godparent was expected to assist the godchild throughout life and to act as a counselor and a mediator, especially during intrafamily disputes. If a parent should die while the child was still a minor, the godparent would take over the child's upbringing. This, then, is the background of the serious and sacred relationship that would become distorted through the literary and media representations that captured America's attention during the 1970's.
The next three sections of this chapter analyze three representations of the godfather figure created by Italian American writers in order to reveal how they create mythic figures out of historical materials. Mario Puzo's novel, Gay Talese's nonfiction narrative, and Giose Rimanelli's parody represent three very different approaches to representing this very important cultural figure in writing. What is more interesting, however, is how these three representations speak to each other in the construction and the deconstruction of the myth the myth that I call the myth of reverse assimilation.
The book got much better reviews than I expected. I wished like hell I'd written it better. I like the book. It has energy and I lucked out by creating a central character that was popularly accepted as genuinely mythic. But I wrote below my gifts in that book.
—Mario Puzo, "The Making of The Godfather"
This work of fiction is not really about organized crime or about gangsterism. The true theme has to do with family pride and personal honor. That's what made The Godfather so popular. It portrayed people with a strong sense of kinship to survive in a cruel world.
—Joseph Bonanno, A Man of Honor
The Godfather is Mario Puzo's third novel. His earlier novels represent his attempts to fulfill a dream of becoming an artist and escaping the ghetto world in which he was born. Like Fante, di Donato, and Mangione, Puzo's early encounter with such writers as Dostoevsky in his local library strengthened his belief in art and enabled him to "understand what was really happening to me and the people around me." It was not art, however, but war that finally enabled Puzo to escape his environment "without guilt." Out of his experiences in Europe during and after the Second World War he crafted his first novel, The Dark Arena (1955); ten years later he returned to his life experiences growing up in New York's Little Italy to create The Fortunate Pilgrim (1965). In The Dark Arena, the protagonist, Walter Mosca (in Italian, mosca means "fly"), returns home from serving with the American occupation army in Germany. Unable to take up where he left off before the war, Mosca returns to Germany as a civilian employee of the occupation government and resumes his life as a black marketeer. While the novel received some good reviews, Puzo was disappointed that it did not make much money. The Fortunate Pilgrim received similar notices and brought Puzo even less financial reward. Because of the poor sales of his earlier works, no publisher would advance him the money he needed to write a third novel. Twenty thousand dollars in debt, he began to look for a way out. "I was forty-five years old," he writes, "and tired of being an artist."
With the publication of The Godfather in 1969, Mario Puzo was immediately promoted to celebrity status. Not since the publication of Pietro di Donato's Christ in Concrete had an American author of Italian descent been thrust into the national spotlight on such a grand scale. The timing of The Godfather's publication had much to do with its rapid climb to number one and its sixty-seven-week stay on the New York Times best-seller list. The novel came off the press in the middle of the ethnic revival period of the 1960s. It also followed nationally televised congressional hearings on organized crime and the publication of Peter Maas's nonfiction bestseller The Valachi Papers, in which mobster-turned-informer Joe Valachi describes his activities inside organized crime.
The Godfather has done more to create a national consciousness of the Italian American experience than any work of fiction or nonfiction published before or since. It certainly was the first novel that Italian Americans as a group reacted to, either positively or negatively, perhaps because it appeared at a time when Italian Americans were just beginning to emerge as an identifiable cultural and political entity. Even though this book is much more a work of fiction than any of the earlier, more autobiographical novels written by Italian Americans, it created an identity crisis for Italian Americans throughout the nation. Antidefamation groups denounced Puzo for creating a bad image of Italians in America; young Italian American boys formed "Godfather" clubs; and real mafiosi claimed that Puzo knew what he was writing about. For a while, Puzo wrote a number of essays on the subject of Italian America which appeared in major national magazines. These essays, while often undermining the image of Italians that he created in The Godfather and his later novel The Sicilian, are also quite critical of the Italian American's behavior in American society.
The effect of this one novel was tremendous. Since its publication, and especially since its film adaptations in the early 1970s, Italian American novelists have been writing in The Godfather's shadow, and Puzo has become a recluse. Though sociologists and literary scholars may forever debate the value of Puzo's work, most would agree that he has left a permanent imprint on the American cultural scene through his representation of Italianita and his creation of a mythic filter through which Italian American culture would henceforth be read.
In "The Authority of the Signifier: Barthes and Puzo's The Godfather," Christian Messenger reads The Godfather through Roland Barthes's essay "Myth Today" for the purpose of determining the role that myth plays in the production of popular culture. Messenger points out that while the Corleone family "appeared to be a protofamily for our collapsing time," it also set up a false dichotomy between good murderers and bad murderers. Messenger reads Puzo's symbolizing as signifiers of a mythic language that result from artificially naturalizing history, a process that Barthes says is the function of myth. Messenger's reading of key scenes in the novel makes clear "the dialectal flow between naturalizing and historicizing" that Puzo's narrative obscures. The Godfather portrays the Mafia as a natural force in the Sicilian world from which Vito Corleone comes, a world he attempts to re-create in his new home in America. In this world the Don and his family are portrayed as the "good guys," and the American establishment with which they struggle—the institutions of law and business—are set up as the "bad guys." Messenger suggests that the key question asked by the novel is raised by Jack Woltz and Kay Adams: "What if everyone acted that way?" This question can guide us through a reading of the novel as an exercise in the portrayal of reverse assimilation. In other words, in this novel Puzo presents the question that in effect is the real Italian American dream: What if America assimilated to our ways? Before setting up this approach to reading The Godfather, let me first point to some of the aspects of the novel that can be connected to more traditional Western myths.
The Don's system of belief is based on the idea that each man has but one destiny. The Don's own destiny was determined when he killed Fanucci, the thug who extorted money from local merchants and demanded tribute from any criminal activity that took place in his neighborhood. When Fanucci demands a percentage of Vito's and his partners' crime, Vito decides to kill him. "It was from this experience came his oft repeated belief that every man has but one destiny. On that night he could have paid Fanucci the tribute and have become again a grocery clerk…. But destiny had decided that he was to become a Don and had brought Fanucci to him to set him on his destined path." Similarly, each of the Don's sons is seen as having his destiny determined by a single incident. Santino (Sonny), the oldest son, is destined to follow his father's ways, not only because of birth but, according to the Don, because he witnessed his father's shooting of Fanucci. Michael Corleone's destiny is revealed the night he shoots Sollozzo and the police captain. Fredo's position outside the inner workings of the family business is determined by his inability to defend his father during the assassination attempt.
Puzo borrows a figure from ancient mythology to describe the Don's children. Daughter Connie has a "Cupid-bow mouth." Sonny is described as having the face "of a gross Cupid." His large penis signifies his Dionysian behavior, which interferes with his ability to concentrate on the family business. Ruled by his emotions, Sonny is unable to become a good don. Fredo has "the same Cupid head of the family" and lacks "that animal force, so necessary for a leader of men." Predictably, Michael is the only child not described in terms of Cupid.
Throughout the novel the Don is characterized as a god or demigod who can negotiate affairs between humans and the supernatural. This is underscored by the hospital scene in which Genco Abbandando lies on his deathbed crying out, "Godfather, Godfather … save me from death…. Godfather, cure me, you have the power." The Don replies that he does not have such powers, but if he did, he should "be more merciful than God." Genco then appeals to the Don to stay with him as he faces death: "Perhaps if He sees you near me He will be frightened and leave me in peace. Or perhaps you can say a word, pull a few strings, eh?" When he is not being a god, Don Corleone is portrayed as a heroic figure who is able to struggle with the gods. Puzo characterizes Don Corleone as a rarity, a man of will, a man among "men who refused the dominion of other men. There was no force, no mortal man who could bend them to their will unless they wished it. They were men who guarded their free will with wiles and murder."
In the Don's speech to the heads of the other crime families after the murder of Sonny, he attempts to make peace through an appeal to the American Dream, but the whole speech is an example of bella figura, a public posturing designed to shield his true plans and to present the illusion that he is willing to assimilate to the American ways of doing illegal business:
Let me say that we must always look to our interests. We are all men who have refused to be fools, who have refused to be puppets dancing on a string pulled by the men on high. We have been fortunate here in this country. Already most of our children have found a better life. Some of you have sons who are professors, scientists, musicians, and you are fortunate. Perhaps your grandchildren will become the new pezzonovanti. None of us here want to see our children follow in our footsteps, it's too hard a life.
The Don uses his power to make friends who will strengthen his position. His competitor, Sollozzo, is driven by the opportunity to make money through the high profits of drug manufacturing and distribution; however, he lacks a key ingredient for insuring the venture's success—the Don's friends in high places. This is the clash between the Old World sense of power bringing wealth and the New World's sense of wealth bringing power. Thus, when the Don pledges not to seek revenge for Santino's murder and to support drug trafficking, he does so because he sees that the only way to keep his family intact is to ensure Michael's safe return from Sicily. After this speech, the Don returns home and announces his semiretirement and his plans to stay home and work in his garden. But he can do this only because he knows that Michael will take over the business and enact the Corleone family's revenge.
Ironically, Michael, the son destined to take over the Don's power, is the one closest to total assimilation into American life. At the outset of the novel, Michael breaks the code of omertà by letting Kay Adams in on the history of his father's business. During his sister's wedding reception Michael tells stories about the "more colorful wedding guests, like Luca Brasi. He explains to Kay what is going on at the meetings held inside his father's study and interprets the ambiguities she, an outsider, is unable to read. Later, on the night that his father is shot, Michael leaves Kay and returns to the family house, and "for the first time since it had all started he felt a furious anger rising in him, a cold hatred for his father's enemies." This fury drives Michael back into the family fold and leads him to avenge his father's shooting.
Up to this point, Michael has been as innocent as the women in the Corleone clan. He has been kept out of the family business and has had a hero's upbringing, the American equivalent of an aristocrat's education, with knightly training in the marines through which he achieves heroism during the war. His military service is part of his attempt to Americanize himself: It represents loyalty to a power that is not Sicilian and rebellion against his father's wishes, as the Don realizes: "He performs those miracles for strangers." Michael's murder of Sollozzo and the police captain takes place under the fated circumstances of an Orestes. His ancestral culture's code demands vengeance for his father's blood, and Michael acts accordingly.
After the murder, Michael flees to Sicily, that otherworldly ground of his being and his subconscious—a locus for so much of Western mythology. There he meets the characters who embody the new condition of his soul, which is physically manifest in his disfigured face. He learns the history of Sicilian culture and the role the Mafia has played in it through Dr. Taza: "He came to understand his father's character and his destiny … to understand men like Luca Brasi, the ruthless caporegime Clemenza, his mother's resignation and acceptance of her role. For in Sicily he saw what they would have been if they had chosen not to struggle against their fate." His bodyguards, like mythological dogs, defend him against the wolves (strangers outside the circles of family and friends) through their use of lupara, or "wolf guns." He meets Apollonia, his anima—the pure, good, noble, and beautiful, full of pietàs and innocence. This all takes place in the pastoral setting so thickly described by Puzo during the couple's first meeting and throughout their brief marriage. When Apollonia dies, the victim of a car bomb intended for Michael, it is because he is set on the course that kills the innocence and dirties the moral cleanliness inside himself. She dies in his place as the part of himself that his own actions kill. Her very name and physical appearance signify the chiaroscuro contrast, the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy that the new Michael has become. Their relationship is typical of the male/female social dichotomy in Sicilian culture in which the woman holds the good, the man shoulders the evil. As Don Corleone earlier reminded his godson Johnny Fontane, women "are not competent in this world, though certainly they will be saints in heaven while we men burn in hell."
While the typical successful hero in traditional myth returns from the otherworld strengthened and complete, Michael returns to America with nothing but a memory of the values represented by Apollonia. Instead of becoming a savior of American society as a fully realized human being, he returns and grows stronger as a monster; a hero in his family's society, he becomes a villain in American society. Unlike Orestes, he never receives the deus ex machina-like compassion of an intervening Athena to save him according to traditional myths. The education Michael receives during his exile in Sicily enables him to take command of his father's kingdom and ruthlessly rule it in the Old World manner.
While there is much in this novel that lends itself to interpretation through traditional myth analysis, Puzo also develops something that transcends the archetype approach. What Puzo has contributed to Italian American culture is a myth of the assimilation of America into Italian culture. Vito Corleone's goal is to render powerless the forces that attempt to control him. And he does this by re-creating the Old World in the midst of the New.
Many people read The Godfather as an allegory of a decadent America in the postwar period. But the novel can just as well be read as the struggle to protect a family and preserve it, no matter the cost, in a hostile environment. If the family is to be preserved, assimilation into American culture must be avoided, and this can be done only if the exact opposite happens; that is, if America assimilates into the culture of the Don and his family. Thus, the novel can be read as proposing the following question: What would happen if an Italian had the power to make America conform to his or her way of seeing/being in the world? In order for this to occur, the Italian would need to create an alternative world within the world, a world that competes with the American world, one that offers a viable alternative. It is inevitable that when these two worlds come into conflict with each other, the subsequent tension often erupts into violence.
The world that Don Vito Corleone replicates in America is built on the solid foundations of a centuries-old social order in which fate or destiny, more often than not through birth, determined the life an individual would lead. In the feudalistic system of Sicily and southern Italy, the peasant could not hope to aspire to a better life by challenging the forces that controlled his life. As a result, attention was focused on what could be controlled, the family unit. This is the reason so many Italians immigrated to America. The world into which they came had been built on the myth that through freedom, people can become whatever they want if only they work hard enough. This puritanical work ethic and the built-in reward system did not require the family to stick together, and often it led to the breakup of the nuclear family.
The Don's Old World notion of a work ethic requires that the family stick together, and any attempt by an individual to leave threatens the livelihood of the entire family. In fact, if a family is to survive with its Old World values intact, it must work against assimilation and strive to have its surrounding environment conform to the family's way of life. Thus, the central conflict of this novel is how to keep the family together for its own good in a land where people no longer depend on the family unit for survival. This conflict is introduced through the opening vignettes in the Don's office. Amerigo Bonasera's family was harmed through the American youth who beat up his daughter, Johnny Fontane lives a mockery of a marriage to a Hollywood star, and to protect his family's honor the baker Nazorine must find a way for his helper, Enzo, a prisoner of war about to be deported, to marry his daughter. All three men have found success by adapting to the American way of life, but when the New World system fails them, when the nuclear family has been threatened or attacked, they return to the Old World through Don Corleone, just as villagers returned to the castle for protection from invasion during feudal times. In return for his assistance, Don Vito requires "that you, you yourself proclaim your friendship"; in other words, that you conform to his way of life. In this way Corleone not only perpetuates the Old World system but also further insulates and protects his own family. In many ways, Don Corleone is like the king of feudal times who offers protection to those whose problems he has helped to create. His consigliore, Tom Hagen, realizes this: "It was a pattern he was to see often, the Don helping those in misfortune whose misfortune he had partly created. Not perhaps out of cunning or planning but because of his variety of interests or perhaps because of the nature of the universe, the interlinking of good and evil, natural of itself." The Don, because he is the center of the world he has re-created in America, is like God who makes all things, good and evil, and is the force that is cursed as it is praised by those who live under his dominion. And so, Bonasera, Nazorine, Fontane, and most of the novel's other characters are monologic, all pieces in the puzzle Puzo produces, which reveals the power of Old World culture to maintain itself in a New World environment. Don Corleone is more concerned with maintaining l'ordine della famiglia and expanding its power than with increasing his profits; that is what he transfers to his son Michael, who has become Old World through his exile in Sicily. Michael achieves what Sonny and Fredo cannot because they lack the experience of life in the land of Mafia origins, an experience that would have balanced their beings. The Don does what he believes is necessary for men's families to thrive. He leads his godson, Johnny Fontane, back to taking care of his family and his friends through Nino. He will ensure through an act of Congress that Nazorine finds a good husband for his daughter. And his men will enact the vengeance that Amerigo Bonasera needs in order to return honor to himself and his family.
There are numerous examples of the Don's ability to make America and Americans assimilate to his ways. Tom Hagen, a German American orphan brought into the Don's home, is raised as one of his own, educated in the American system all the way through law school. Given this opportunity to become a successful American, Hagen opts instead to complete his assimilation into the Don's world. "'I would work for you like your sons,' Hagen said, meaning with complete loyalty, with complete acceptance of the Don's parental divinity." Later on, the Don remarks, "Even though you're not a Sicilian, I made you one." Yet, in spite of Hagen's near-native knowledge of Sicilian ways—he is the one able to read the Sicilian sign of the fish wrapped in Luca Brasi's bloodstained vest and is appointed acting consigliore on Genco's death—and because he is not of Sicilian blood, not "born to the ways of omertà," he is relegated to marginal status when Michael takes over. Tom breaks the code of omertà at the end of the novel when he explains to Kay why Michael had to kill Connie's husband, Carlo. It is as though Vito Corleone is a Midas whose very touch turns people into Sicilians. In spite of the power that the movie producer Jack Woltz has gained in the American system, he too must assimilate to the Don's world, he must give in to the Don's wish that his godson Johnny Fontane get the role that revives his film career and his loyalty to the family. It is Don Vito whose subtle machinations remind Johnny of how he neglected his responsibilities to help his boyhood friend and paesano Nino. The Don provides Johnny with the means to succeed, and ironically it also becomes the means by which Nino is destroyed.
The character who best illustrates this reverse assimilation hypothesis is Kay Adams. Kay, who can trace her ancestral lineage to the Mayflower, embodies all that is American, and her assimilation into the Corleone family is the strongest evidence of reverse assimilation. When Michael brings her to his sister's wedding, he does so to "show his own future wife to them, the washed-out rag of an American girl." He sits with her "at a table in the extreme corner of the garden to proclaim his chosen alienation from father and family." When the Corleones meet her they are unimpressed: "She was too thin, too fair, her face was too sharply intelligent for a woman, her manner too free for a maiden. Her name, too, was outlandish to their ears…. If she had told them that her family had settled in America two hundred years ago and her name was a common one, they would have shrugged." No matter how much he loves and trusts Kay, Michael realizes that she is an outsider when he sees her after his father has been gunned down. Michael does tell her enough about his father to give her the opportunity to back out of the relationship, but she does not. Even when she finds out from Michael's mother that what she had heard about Michael is true, she still holds on to the hope that she will see Michael again. Two years go by and Kay finds work teaching grade school, and she decides one day to call Mrs. Corleone. While talking to her, Kay finds out that Michael has been back in the country for six months. She becomes angry with Michael, his mother, and "all foreigners—Italians who didn't have the common courtesy to keep up a decent show of friendship even if a love affair was over," yet still accepts Mama Corleone's invitation to visit her at the Corleone home. During their reconciliation, Kay tells Michael he could have trusted her, that she would have "practiced the New England omertà. Yankees are pretty closemouthed too, you know." Kay accepts Michael's proposal for a Sicilian marriage, one in which she would be his wife but not "a partner in life," after he confides to her that the family will be legitimate within five years and after he provides her with a "final explanation" of his father's business philosophy.
The next we hear of Kay is when Michael is returning home from Las Vegas. We learn that they had been married in a quiet New England ceremony and that Michael was "surprised at how well Kay got along with his parents and the other people living on the mall." She is described as "a good, old-style Italian wife" who gets pregnant "right away." At the birth of her second child, Kay comes to understand that she is "on her way to becoming a Sicilian" after she realizes that the story Connie tells her about Carlo's fuss over the right baptismal gift must be transmitted to Michael. Kay leaves Michael when she realizes that he did have his own brother-in-law murdered. Then, against her own better judgment, she accepts Tom Hagen's explanation and returns to Michael and converts to Catholicism, something that does not please Michael, who wants "the children to be Protestant, it was more American." Nevertheless, she is converted to his world and accepts the role of the woman subservient to man. Ironically, the conversion takes place because of her interaction with Tom Hagen, who both breaks the code of omertà and treats her as an equal. The final scene of the novel finds Kay at Mass, praying, like Mama Corleone, for the "soul of Michael Corleone." And so, Don Con Corleone's bid to control his world has had its greatest impact. He has been able, through his son, to convert an American Mayflower Protestant princess into a proper Sicilian mother.
Through the marriage of Michael to Kay, Puzo represents the ideal, albeit mythical, synthesis of Italian and American cultures. No matter how much Michael expresses his desires to be legitimate and American on the surface, under his skin he is true to the Sicilian world of his father, and he re-creates that world for the next generation. Thus, Puzo forges in fiction what is impossible to create in reality. The key to this novel's success lies in Puzo's ability to make readers envy and even fear the mystery and the power inside the Italianità that he represents through the Corleone family.