Over the years, I have made recalcitrant colleagues offers they can’t refuse, taunted my family by referring to them as my own cosa nostra, sworn to go to the mattresses against random Twitter trolls. It is fair to say that Mario Puzo’s The Godfather left a deeper mark on me than most literary classics.
Fifty years after the publication of the book, Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation is probably what most people remember, more so than Puzo’s original novel about Don Vito Corleone, the olive oil business, and the rise of a Mafia clan. The book was a huge success, staying on the New York Times bestseller list for 67 weeks, outselling Philip Roth, Peter Benchley and Michael Crichton. The paper’s review in 1969 enthused: “ . . . with loving care and detail, what Roth has done for masturbation, Puzo has done for murder.”
Puzo was born in Hell’s Kitchen in 1920, one of 12 children of Italian immigrants. His father, an illiterate trackman for the New York Central Railroad, abandoned his mother when Mario Puzo was just 12. Maria Le Conti Puzo inspired Lucia Santa, the heroic Italian mother of his second novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim, and in turn Don Vito Corleone. “Whenever the Godfather opened his mouth, in my own mind I heard the voice of my mother. I heard her wisdom, her ruthlessness, and her unconquerable love for her family and for life itself.”
He served briefly and without much distinction in the US military, and published his first novel, The Dark Arena, in 1955. Puzo had borrowed books from the public library, where he would later research The Godfather; he wanted to be a writer, a good one, like Dostoevsky. He wrote three literary novels, including a curiously haunting novel about a teenage boy’s on-the-road odyssey, The Runaway Summer of Davie Shaw, which earned some critical praise and a total of $6,500.
“I was 45 years old and tired of being an artist,” Puzo wrote in The Godfather Papers and Other Confessions. “Besides, I owed $20,000 to relatives, finance companies, banks and assorted bookmakers and shylocks. It was really time to grow up and sell out as Lenny Bruce once advised.” GP Putnam’s editors gave him a $5,000 advance, and some months later, the paperback rights sold to Fawcett for a record $410,000. He’d already sold the film rights — Paramount Pictures offered $12,500 based on the first 100 pages — ignoring his agents’ advice to wait.
I read The Godfather in my teens for the carnal bits and violence, and again in my 20s for the Hollywood gossip, the almost lyrical bits of New York Italian immigrant history. Coming back to it over two decades later, it’s surprising that Puzo’s writing still seems so fresh, so contemporary. “Don Vito Corleone was a man to whom everyone came for help, and never were they disappointed.” It may never be a classic — Puzo felt that it overshadowed all of his later novels — but it remains one of the great mainstream works of fiction about family and business.
The close-knit Italian families he described, cooking and fighting and living in a tight huddle, did not feel foreign to me; they felt exactly like Bengali families, minus perhaps the high body count and the blaze of guns. The economy of favours that he describes in long, carefully researched chapters on the genesis of the Genco Pura Olive Oil company was familiar, too, because that was how much of New Delhi and north India’s business clans worked and still work, stepping in to dispense justice, protection, retribution where the government either failed or was absent.
Puzo gave few interviews, but when he spoke to Larry King in 1996, he said: “The Godfather was really, to me, a family novel, more than a crime novel.” At one time, I turned to The Godfather not for the epic war between the Barzinis and the Corleones, or the sickeningly accurate descriptions of how to garrotte your more inconvenient enemies, but as a kind of guide to the world of men who’d grown up in families where masculinity was prized, taught, and constantly had to be proved. The Corleone had a bro code long before the term had been invented, and it played out not just among Sonny Corleone, Michael Corleone and the clan’s trusted capos, but between the singer Johnny Fontane and his childhood friend Nino Valenti.
The Fortunate Pilgrim is probably the best novel that Puzo, who died in 1999, wrote. But The Godfather is the one he’ll be remembered for. “It was part of the Don’s greatness that he profited from everything,” wrote Puzo. In the badlands of India, and a dozen other countries, there are still men like Vito Corleone, building their businesses on a high corpse count and a shrewd understanding of human nature, growing green peppers and tomatoes in their gardens once the shooting is done.