Mario Puzo Puzo, Mario (Vol. 107) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Dark Arena (novel) 1955
The Fortunate Pilgrim (novel) 1965
The Godfather (novel) 1969
The Godfather [with Francis Ford Coppola] (screenplay) 1972
The Godfather Papers and Other Confessions (essays) 1972
Earthquake [with George Fox] (screenplay) 1974
The Godfather: Part II [with Francis Ford Coppola] (screenplay) 1974
Inside Las Vegas (nonfiction) 1977
Fools Die (novel) 1978
Superman [with David Newman, Leslie Newman, and Robert Benton] (screenplay) 1978
Superman II [with David Newman and Leslie Newman] (screenplay) 1981
The Sicilian (novel) 1984
The Godfather: Part III [with Francis Ford Coppola] (screenplay) 1990
The Fourth K (novel) 1991
Christopher Columbus: The Discovery [with John Briley and Cary Bates] (screenplay) 1992
The Last Don (novel) 1996

David Boroff (review date 31 January 1965)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 732 words.)

Time (review date 14 March 1969)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 553 words.)

Gerald Kingsland (review date 13 October 1972)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 379 words.)

Rose Basile Green (essay date 1974)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6789 words.)

John G. Cawelti (essay date 1975)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8234 words.)

John Sutherland (essay date 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3147 words.)

R. Z. Sheppard (review date 3 December 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 761 words.)

Robert Royal (review date 5 April 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1158 words.)

Marianna De Marco Torgovnick (essay date Spring 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5224 words.)

John Kenneth Galbraith (review date 13 January 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1008 words.)

Thomas J. Ferraro (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4369 words.)

Vincent Patrick (review date 28 July 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 883 words.)

R. Z. Sheppard (review date 29 July 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1198 words.)

Jeff Zaleski (interview date 29 July 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2229 words.)

Fred L. Gardaphe (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5250 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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.


(The entire section is 219 words.)