Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Godfather by Mario Puzo

The Godfather by Mario Puzo, 1969

Hagen had taken the call in the kitchen, with Mama Corleone bustling around preparing a snack for the arrival of her daughter. He had kept his composure and the old woman had not noticed anything amiss. Not that she could not have, if she wanted to, but in her life with the Don she had learned it was far wiser not to perceive. That if it was necessary to know something painful, it would be told to her soon enough. And if it was a pain that could be spared her, she could do without. She was quite content not to share the pain of her men, after all did they share the pain of women? Impassively she boiled her coffee and set the table with food. In her experience pain and fear did not dull physical hunger; in her experience the taking of food dulled pain. She would have been outraged if a doctor had tried to sedate her with a drug, but coffee and a crust of bread was another matter; she came, of course, from a more primitive culture.

And so she let Tom Hagen escape to his corner conference room and once in that room, Hagen began to tremble so violently he had to sit down with his legs squeezed together, his head hunched into his contracted shoulders, hands clasped together between his knees as if he were praying to the devil.

He was, he knew now, no fit
Consigliere for a Family at war. He had been fooled, fake out, by the Five Families and their seeming timidity. They had remained quiet, laying their terrible ambush. They had planned and waited, holding their bloody hands no matter what provocation they had been given. They had waited to land one terrible blow. And they had. Old Genco Abbandando would never have fallen for it, he would have smelled a rat, he would have smoked them out, tripled his precautions. And through all this Hagen felt his grief. Sonny had been his true brother, his savior; his hero when they had been boys together. Sonny had never been mean or bullying with him, had always treated him with affection, had taken him in his arms when Sollozzo had turned him loose. Sonny's joy at that reunion had been real. That he had grown up to be a cruel and violent and bloody man was, for Hagen, not relevant.--- (page 236)

Few 20th-century novels have become ingrained in cultural consciousness as quickly as The Godfather. Most of its popularity is due to the wildly successful and highly lauded film adaptation, but the book is where all of the indelible images and ideas come from: "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse." The horse's head in the bed. Don Corleone's awesome power and influence. The bloodbath in the diner. Michael's journey to taking over his father's business. Even though I've never actually seen the movie (yes, I know, it's embarrassing), I had a rough idea of what to expect from Mario Puzo's original novel, storywise. But I didn't know what to expect from the actual storytelling, and the novel ended up surprising me with its uninspiring prose and meandering narrative.

The Godfather begins on the day of Connie Corleone's wedding. Don Vito Corleone, one of the most powerful Mafia bosses in New York, is a brilliant, ruthless leader tactician. Two of his sons have joined him in the "family business," but the youngest, Michael, is a peaceful college graduate who only wants to marry his girlfriend. On Connie's wedding day, events are set in motion that will result in carnage and bloodshed: an up-and-coming underworld businessman offers the Don a risky deal, which he refuses, setting off a vicious Mafia war that will ravage the Family and set its members on a violent date with destiny.

The plot is absolutely bursting with possibilities from the start, and if nothing else, Puzo has come up with a killer premise. The hidden world of the Mafia, the unshakable Family loyalty, the power structure, the constant danger and double-crossing: it's a setting that just cries out for a story. Puzo has created an incredibly compelling world; it's no wonder that the novel has gripped the public imagination so feverishly (even real-life gangsters are reputed to have been influenced by the book and film's portrayal of the Mafia). The novel's central structure is equally solid. Michael's journey from innocent bystander to ruthless Don is the stuff classics are made of. There's a Shakespearean feel to his arc that Puzo, to his credit, sells.

My main problem with the book is simple. Puzo may have come up with a wonderful premise, but he's not the right writer to carry it out. His prose is actually rather bad--flat, stilted and awkwardly oscillating between pulp-novel purple prose and an inept literary style. He's an inveterate violator of the show-don't-tell rule, which makes many passages feel like colorless exposition. His dialogue is not terrible, just a little tin-eared at times and, in the tradition of a lot of 1960s-era novels, the characters talk a bit too much to be believable. Puzo does believably capture an Italian accent and Italian diction without going over-the-top, though.

His characters are mostly interesting (at least in theory), but for the most part they're inadequately drawn, exhibiting fairly one-dimensional personalities. Don Vito, I have to admit, is a memorable creation: prickly, cerebral, subtly eccentric. It's a shame that the other figures in the book aren't better-realized. In the hands of a subtler and more accomplished author, this is a cast that would offer incredibly rich and layered characterizations. I'm guessing that this is probably an area the movie improves on. Characters like Sonny, Kay, Fredo, Tessio and Sollozzo would benefit a lot from closer attention.

One of the oddest things about the novel, to me, was the stagnant pacing, frequent discursions and lengthy, useless subplots. Puzo has storytelling gold in his hands in the form of the main plot, yet he wastes huge chunks of time on baffling side-plots. One of them involves Hollywood star Johnny Fontane, formerly a singing sensation, now a has-been with a throat condition. It's just an odd story, strangely distant from most of the goings-on, and not highly interesting in of itself. Likewise, the story of Lucy Mancini, Sonny's ex-lover with the genital birth defect, is seemingly added to provide padding to a novel that definitely doesn't need it. Puzo's main story is way too strong for this kind of device to be necessary, and the fact that the subplots are both mildly boring doesn't help.

Considering the fact that the Godfather was written as pulp fiction, the pace is hardly fast. The first hundred pages move fairly steadily, but there are big sections with little forward momentum or relevant action. Puzo is not a good enough writer to justify some of the meandering segments and he seems largely uninterested in delving into the emotional and moral lives of his characters. I would have liked to know how the various members of the Corleone family justify their crimes, how they live every day with the knowledge of the atrocities being committed for their sake. Puzo does dip into these themes towards the end of the book.

Although I was surprised by the book's messiness and lack of narrative drive, there are unquestionably some moments of pure inspiration. Moments like Sonny's murder by tollbooth, or the Don making a false peace with the Five Families, or the masterfully choreographed revenge plot that serves as the novel's climax. Puzo's writing may lack polish and finesse, but there's a strong imaginative force behind his storytelling that almost makes up for it. The world he's created and the characters that live in it are somehow indelible, one of those feats of creativity that has grabbed the imagination of millions. Conceptually, The Godfather is a work of genius. It's the execution that's somewhat lacking.

NEXT UP: John D. MacDonald's The Deep Blue Good-By.

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