- - Monday, April 8, 2019


By Mario Puzo

With a new introduction by Francis Ford Coppola

Penguin Random House, $14.55, 448 pages

Mario Puzo’s novel “The Godfather” became one of the best-selling novels in publishing history in 1969, and the novel continues to sell well today, perhaps due in good part to new generations of readers who flock to the novel after viewing director Francis Ford Coppola’s classic films that were based on Mr. Puzo’s novel.

Now, 50 years later, “The Godfather: 50th Anniversary Edition” has been released. The new edition offers an interesting introduction by Francis Ford Coppola, who recalls his collaboration with Mario Puzo on the screenplay for the film.

The powerful and compelling story of Vito Corleone, a New York Italian-American organized crime boss, and his three sons — Sonny, Fredo and Michael — can be described as almost Shakespearian. Between the successful novel and the classic films, the epic story of the Corleone family is perhaps better known to most Americans than Shakespeare’s tragedies.

Although highly romanticized, “The Godfather” is a fine fictionalized study of organized crime’s history in America. Nearly all the major events in the Mario Puzo novel (and the films) were based on true events in crime history.

Mr. Puzo claimed his novel was based solely on research and that he didn’t know any mobsters, (although as a gambler, he undoubtedly knew mobbed-up bookmakers and loan sharks), but it was perhaps a testimony to Mario Puzo’s skill as a novelist that real mob guys never truly believed him. Many of them believed he had a highly placed mob source.

Mario Puzo was a poor and struggling writer when he sat down to write “The Godfather.” His two previous novels, “The Dark Arena” and “The Fortunate Pilgrim,” received good reviews but earned him little money. As “The Fortunate Pilgrim” had a criminal as one of the characters, Mr. Puzo’s publisher suggested he write a novel about the mob.

Mario Puzo set out to write a blockbuster novel, not a literary one. His novel contains portions of salacious material of the kind one finds in Harold Robbins novels. A subplot involving Lucy Mancini, Sonny Corleone’s girlfriend, a plastic surgeon and the Hollywood crowd, was just awful. Mr. Puzo threw the subplot in as he knew this kind of material sold novels.

Thankfully, the novel is mostly about organized crime, corruption and murder, as well as kinship.

The story largely takes place from 1945 to 1955. In 1945, Don Vito Corleone is the head of a powerful organized crime family in New York. His world is disturbed when an Italian-American international drug trafficker named Virgil “the Turk” Sollozzo approaches the mob boss and asks for $2 million to finance his drug operations from Sicily and Turkey to America. He also wants the use of Don Vito’s powerful political and law enforcement connections. Solozzo already has the backing of the rival Tattaglia crime family.

Don Vito says no, but not because he is against drugs. His refusal is purely practical, based on the views of the politicians, judges and policemen on his payroll. They see his criminal operations, such as gambling, as largely harmless victimless crimes. They see drugs as a dirty business, and he would lose their support if he became involved.

Vito Corleone’s refusal leads to an attempt on his life by Sollozzo’s gunmen. Fredo, the weakest of the brothers, stood helplessly by as his father was shot numerous times.

Vito Corleone survives the shooting and is hospitalized while an internecine mob war begins. Sonny, the hot-tempered eldest son who “made his bones” as a gunman and killer in an earlier mob war, takes the reins of the family.

Michael, a World War II veteran who didn’t want to be part of the “family business,” becomes involved as his father’s life is in jeopardy. Although considered a “civilian” and not a mob member, he offers to murder Sollozzo, who is seemingly untouchable as he is always in the company of a crooked NYPD captain.

There are so many great characters and scenes in this novel that I can’t possibly name or describe them all here.

I first read the novel as a teenager when it came out in 1969, reread it over the years, and I enjoyed reading it once again. As I’m half-Italian and grew up in the “Little Italy” section of South Philadelphia, I especially liked Mr. Puzo’s portrayal of Italian family traditions, food and music.

I don’t subscribe to the capitalism analogy that Francis Ford Coppola and others often claim, as organized crime also existed under communists in the Soviet Union. I just think it’s a great crime story.

I highly recommend the novel to those who have not read it, and I suggest that those who have, reread “The Godfather” on the novel’s 50th anniversary

• Paul Davis covers crime, espionage and terrorism.

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