I’m one of the few people I know that has not watched Francis Ford Coppola’s film classic The Godfather. When a co-worker promised that “The movie was good, but the book was better,” I decided to test the thesis.
And, indeed, I wonder if I’ll ever need to even try the movie after reading The Godfather. As written by Mario Puzo, The Godfather is something that pulls you in, grasps you, and demands you pay attention. Pay attention as the Godfather builds his empire, plots against his rivals, and establishes plausible deniability, all set on a foundation of Sicilian honor, “omerta,” and business. Pay attention to a world where the highest value is loyalty and where blood is thicker than love, a chauvinistic world where men rule over their women and where women refrain from asking too many questions.
It’s almost medieval. And yet, there are statements here, commentary by author Mario Puzo about the environment in which the Sicilian mafia like that of the Corleone family rose. But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself.
The Godfather opens right in the middle of things. We are at the wedding of Don Corleone’s daughter Connie to Carlo Rizzo. The whole family has gathered at “the mall” to celebrate. Here are the Don’s sons: Sonny, who is mean, dangerous, and carnal; Fredo, the middle child destined for mediocrity; and Michael, the one most like his father, but straight-laced and, almost scandalously, a war hero in love with a non-Italian girl from New Hampshire. Also present is the rest of the cast of The Godfather: the caporegimes Clemenza and Tessio, the assassin/bodyguard Luca Brasi, and the consigliere, or advisor, to the Don, Tom Hagen, himself an oddity as the only non-Sicilian of the lot. Each is given a story in his or her own time, a back story that makes the fabric of the tale colorful, sturdy and vibrant.
It is a highpoint for the Family. Favors are sought from the Don, and the Don is beneficent and gracious as he dispenses his largesse. And yet, peril threatens. The Family’s power and wealth come from its control of the vices of gambling, prostitution, and alcohol in various boroughs of New York and a new vice is arriving that will force the Corleone’s to consider the future: illicit drugs. When the Don decides he does not want to leverage the Family’s control of politicians, police, and judges to participate in the drug trade, a bloody war between the Sicilian mafia families begins that guides the narrative for the rest of the book. The war, and the Corleone’s reach, will extend from New York to Hollywood and will track the rise of Las Vegas from the desert to become the gambling and entertainment destination that it is today. Here we will see scenes and read lines famous even to those who have not seen the movie: “go to the mattresses,” “make an offer he cannot refuse,” and find a when a horse head is a threat that cannot be ignored, among others.
It many ways, the story is sordid, as are its characters. And yet, Puzo gives reason to sympathize with the Don, with Michael, with Kay, and others. These characters are, before all else, humans and Puzo emphasizes the familial bonds that tie them. They are a group of individuals that will go to war for each other and that can trust each other with their lives. Even as Puzo manages to engage is characters in almost every vile and disgusting vice under the sun, he never loses track of the thread that keeps these individuals tied to each other and creates sympathy for characters that are as honest and true to what they claim to be as if they were modeled after real world individuals.
(Indeed, as I did a little reading about the history of the novel, I stumbled across claims that the character Johnney Fontane was allegedly modeled on Frank Sinatra, who himself was said to have close ties to the mafia. The story goes when Mario Puzo was introduced to Sinatra, the crooner refused to look at him or acknowledge him, standing only to yell at the author as he left. Whether true or not, it sure makes for interesting reading, and it’s had to read certain sections of The Godfather and not see similarities in Johnney Fontane to Frank Sinatra.)
All this leads back to a question that arose as I arrived at about the halfway point in the book. By then I found my sense of disgust at the lack of moral compunction of many of the characters begin to overwhelm Puzo’s gripping narrative. Here were characters that would betray or beat their wives on their wedding night, greedily fueded and kill to establish and strengthen “business” holdings–really just control of gambling “books,” prostitution, and smuggling rackets–and did not bat an eyelash as pornography, pedophilia, adultery (and its unmarried companion fornication), abortion, public corruption, alcoholism, sex operations, assassinations, and more. With heroes like these, who needs antagonists? And, indeed, why keep reading? Where is the redeemable protagonist? I began to realize that at the center of The Godfather we find the morally upright Michael, the man who will not be part of the family business, but who will go his own way, become a war hero, and become, perhaps, something better and more honest.
Or will he? As the story unfolds and Puzo takes opportunities to spin side tales of woe and wickedness, the Corleone’s saga becomes increasingly Michael’s, and it is not a story of redemption, but of tragic fall, for a tragedy it is. In the end, The Godfather is a story of moral decline even as the Corleone’s climb to new heights. The reality of the seduction of power, in both Puzo’s and Lord Acton’s estimation, is that it corrupts.
If Puzo tells us nothing else, it is that the price of loyalty is that one must sometimes give up other virtues for the security and strength that comes with imposing your visions and reality on the world. But this isn’t all that Puzo has to say. In here also is an examination
But this isn’t all. In The Godfather is also is an examination of the time and place that gave rise to the mafia, the influx of migrants in pre-Great Depression America, the corrupt and unpoliced police, and the powerful doing what they will while the weak did what they could. Into this chaotic milieu come individuals like Vito Corleone, fleeing decaying “Old World” Sicily, find opportunity and find themselves at odds with the law as they begin by defending the weak only to become the strong man they once opposed. In a time where the rule of law and increased transparency has made public and police corruption much more the exception than the rule, it is perhaps hard to imagine that there was ever a time when it was different; and yet, in the pages of Puzo’s bestseller lies a world that is entirely credible and, perhaps, just as likely as it seems.
As literature goes, Puzo’s style is heavily expository, but not in a way that fails to recognize when dialogue and action should replace description and exposition. Puzo is telling a story, and it feels like a story is being told. It is a story that is unforgettable, as much for its cautionary lessons as for the sordid world that The Godfather seems to insist existed–exists?–in some version of 1940s and 1950s America. It is a tale that could belong in the past of any great family that has clawed its way to power by criminal means, only to begin the next generation clean and in respectability. It is a very American story, if not the one that fits the modern mythology.