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Goomba Gothic

With "The Godfather," Mario Puzo invented a genre mixing family rituals with vengeful violence. "Omerta" shows it outlives him -- just barely.

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The last don: Puzo's bruisers seem lost in a bland corporate life that is no match for their old-world characters.  

Omerta
BY MARIO PUZO
Random House; 316 pages; $25.95

It was an offer I thought I couldn't refuse. "In the stone-filled village of Castellammare del Golfo facing the dark Sicilian Mediterranean," goes the first line of Mario Puzo's last, posthumously published mobster saga, "a great Mafia Don lay dying." With a contented sigh, I ground my hip more snugly into the sand underneath my beach blanket, checked my sunblock level, and prepared myself for the unique pleasures of Goomba Gothic, a genre -- at once operatically extreme and reassuringly domestic -- that Puzo, if he didn't actually father, certainly Godfathered.

Okay, okay, so it was actually one of those weirdly cold days we had last month, and I was sitting in bed shivering in my p.j.'s. But I wasn't lying about the unique pleasures of the Mafia novel. I've never believed the line about how we love books and movies about the mob because they allow us legitimate access to our (hopefully repressed) illicit urges. To me, it's always been clear that "Family" narratives are so satisfying because they're just extreme versions of stories common to all families: Once you get past the extra-legal window-dressing (the shiny silk suits concealing equally shiny weapons, the "suicides" who manage to end their lives in locked car trunks), Mafia stories always come down to the same everyday issues -- property, loyalty, betrayal, the desire for revenge, and inheritance -- that keep family therapists in business. As with Greek tragedy, another "family-based" genre that can't resist a high body count, it's the extremity that's so much fun: The property is counted in the billions, love is always obsessively possessive, betrayal becomes a matter of life and death, and revenge is elevated to a high art form. In my family, when you fall out of love with your wife, you go to a lawyer and get divorced, while your great-aunt Sylvia clicks her dentures tragically and keeps asking you to explain what "no-fault" means. In the Family, when you fall out of love with your wife, you're likely to get paraded around town nailed to a cross wearing your testicles on your head, which is what happens to one unlucky adulterer in Omerta. So whose family you gonna buy the book about?

It's easy to forget now that Puzo began his career 45 years ago with a couple of really good "straight" novels. The Fortunate Pilgrim (which Puzo considered his favorite), a story of an immigrant Italian woman trying to hold her family together in Hell's Kitchen in the twenties, is particularly moving, and garnered high praise for its "highly charged language and penetrating insights" when it was published in 1964. At the time, critics thought Puzo might be the Italian Henry Roth. Then came The Godfather, which -- partly because of its own thumping virtues, which were those of a good juicy blockbuster rather than those of serious art, and partly because of the phenomenal success of the movie, which was seriously artistic -- created the "golden triangle" novel (New York-Hollywood-Vegas), a franchise that Puzo operated for the rest of his working life.

Omerta feels, unfortunately, like a mass-produced product. The plot can best be described as Five Towns Rococo: Its garishness, its intricate, exhausting curlicues can't disguise the disastrous fact that its main character, Astorre Viola, remains a bland cipher without the ol' Corleone iron-hand-and-velvet-glove panache. Let's see if I got this right: The great Don is dying. On his deathbed, he gives his infant son Astorre to one of his three loyal henchmen, Don Raymonde Aprile, while pledging the remaining two to undying loyalty, etc., etc. Aprile goes back to New York, where he raises little Astorre along with his own children, who at the Don's insistence grow up to be totally "legit": Valerius (no, I am not making these names up) teaches at West Point; Marcantonio is a network-programming bigwig; and Nicole is a feisty beauty whose face, which "revealed every emotion she felt," would, I couldn't help thinking, be something of a handicap in her work as a high-powered lawyer. In one of those trademarked Puzo scenes in which the author throws both violence and Catholic ritual into the narrative blender (the baptism in The Godfather; the assassination of the pope on Easter Sunday in The Fourth K), the elderly Don Aprile, now retired, is gunned down in front of Saint Patrick's after his grandson's first communion. Astorre spends the rest of the novel evading a true-blue FBI agent named Cilke and a corrupt black female NYPD cop named Aspinella Washington (still not making it up), and hunting down and killing the man who ordered the hit: the dreaded Inzio Tulippa (nope!), an international drug dealer who needs the old Don's private banks to launder his dirty money -- and who wants some pin money to build his own nuclear warhead, just in case he can't persuade the U.S. government to legalize drugs. Watch out, Dr. Evil.

There are tiny flashes here of the Mafia-novel stuff I love: the clunky Cecil B. DeMille diction that inevitably alerts you to the presence of a Powerful Mediterranean Personage ("His eyes are as green as olives that spring from my best trees"); the arcane, deliciously scary Sicilian ethics ("Those who give mercy commit an unpardonable offense to the victim"); the fascinating news -- well, fascinating to me -- that hit men, like freelance magazine writers, get kill fees for jobs they undertake but don't complete. But in the end you realize that Omerta's opening line, which hints of 300 pages of narrative pasta alla sarde, is just bait; the soul of this formulaic novel doesn't reside in the colorful, emotionally excessive milieu that Puzo visited and revisited with such success in his earlier work, but dwells in the buttoned-down world of private banking and takeovers, which, we are told again and again, now constitute the arena in which organized crime operates. That may be true; but I don't want to read $25.95 Mafia novels for what I can get for 75 cents in the D section of the Times. "What do you think of moving more heavily into deutsche marks?" someone urgently asks at the end of the novel. Zzzzz.

It seems pretty clear that Puzo's heart wasn't really in all this, either. (To say nothing of the hearts of the Random House editors: The FBI director, Cilke's boss, is described as "a tall, elegant man whose descendants came to America on the Mayflower," which by my count would make him about 400 years old.) His last book ends, indeed, on a regretful note. "The old Mafia was dead," the author writes on his penultimate page. "The great Dons had accomplished their goals and blended gracefully into society, as the best criminals always do. The few pretenders who remained were a disappointing assortment of dim, second-class felons and impotent thugs. Why would anyone want to bother with the rackets when it was much easier to steal millions by starting your own company and selling shares to the public?" Puzo died in July 1999; reading these closing lines, you can't help thinking that he was as aware of -- and disenchanted with -- The Sopranos, with its dim, ill-dressed suburban felons, as he was with the khaki-clad IPO-maniacs who were also laying siege to the public's attention that summer.

It's not that Puzo didn't like big business: He always slyly enjoyed implying that the difference between the Cosa Nostra (which you can translate as "our thing," "our business") and the Republic itself (which is Latin for "the public thing," "the public business") was one of degree rather than kind. (The ruthless hero of his 1991 political thriller The Fourth K was a don in everything but name; it was merest accident that he happened to be president of the United States.) After I finished Omerta, which opens with a deceptive look back at the romantic past that had so enthralled Puzo and had, in turn, made the tales he told so enthralling to his millions of readers, and yet which is, ultimately, as corporate in its mass-produced soul as are the global banks that its protagonists run, I realized why this novel was so lackluster -- why it had no garlic. For Puzo, the fun had gone out of both capitalism and crime. Omerta shows the strain; this final literary offering is all too easy to refuse.

If you want the real Sicilian thing this summer -- the olive-green eyes and the olive groves, the powerful, elaborately courtly men forced to witness the disintegration of the families and institutions they spent their lives building, all against a backdrop of vivid Mediterranean color -- try Giuseppe di Lampedusa's masterpiece The Leopard, which is available as an (ugly and undignified-looking) paperback from Pantheon. Set during the 1860s but incorporating Proustian flashbacks and a final heartbreaking coda in 1910, this dense, dazzling novel, which contrasts the aging, melancholy prince Don Fabrizio with his headstrong nephew Tancredi, is one of the five or six greatest of the nineteenth century; it just happened to be written in the 1950s. Lampedusa himself, an eccentric polymath who worked quietly on his masterpiece while playing a pudgy Fabrizio to a group of young Tancredis, was a Sicilian aristocrat, and knew whereof he so beautifully wrote: His handsome, proud, and ultimately tragic protagonist is based on his own grandfather.


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