In May of 1972, I chose to spend finals week reading a novel instead of studying. You see, by then I was a senior in college and I had learned how to study smart. I went to class, took notes, and tried to make sure I understood the material. When finals rolled around, I figured I either knew it or I didn’t. So I relaxed—unlike some of my peers who missed classes, were always copying my notes, and spent finals week cramming and taking uppers.
The novel I read was The Godfather by Mario Puzo. It was—and remains—one of the most fascinating books I have read. Judging by its continued success I am not alone in that evaluation. Puzo told a compelling story of the family Corleone, raised the curtain on a culture that had done its level best to remain in the shadows, and ignited a cultural phenomenon. The 1972 film version, which I still think of as one of the greatest movies ever, made film history.
For some reason, publishers and filmmakers didn’t want to leave well enough alone. It probably has something to do with money. Like Oliver Twist, they’ve never stopped wanting more. But the results—with the possible exception of Godfather II, taken in part from the original novel—were disappointing. As for the subsequent novels, they were downright forgettable. I quit reading The Sicilian after fifty pages, and I can’t even remember The Godfather Returns and The Godfather’s Revenge. I think I made it through one of them all the way – but I’m not even sure of that.
Okay, so how was it a good idea—given the mediocre results of other published “sequels”—to do a “prequel?” But that is precisely what the Puzo family did. To write the story, which is based on a screenplay written by Puzo before his death, they hired Ed Falco, Director of Creative Writing at Virginia Tech. He is a good writer. The subject is clearly one that still fascinates. But enough is enough.
The Family Corleone (Grand Central Publishing, May 2012) is disappointing for many of the same reasons the sequels were. There simply is no need to “fill in the gaps” in the original story. The details of what happened to Michael Corleone in Sicily, other than those we learned in the original novel, aren’t that important. So The Sicilian didn’t add much if anything worthwhile to the original story. It was the same with the other two sequels by Winegardner. The magic just wasn’t there any more.
In Falco’s prequel we meet again the old standbys: Vito Corleone, Pete Clemenza, Tessio, and a seventeen-year old Sonny. Eleven year old Michael plays little part, and Tom Hagen figures into the story only a little. We do learn how he became consiglieri. Yawn. Prohibition is over, and the Five Families are trying to adjust to the new economy, which soon leads them to go “to the mattresses” (a phrase I first learned in the original, but which was too predictable in this “prequel”). We learn how Luca Brasi (who could barely stammer “May their first child be a masculine child” — a real monster who would eventually “sleep with the fishes”) came into the family. Yawn. There is a shootout in a small Italian eatery, after which they clean up the bodies and the owner brings out more food. There are the requisite references to the size of Sonny’s schlong (one girl calls it a “monument”). Getting bored yet? Oh, and the climax? Remember the baptism scene in Godfather I, during which the members of the five families were blown away? In Godfather II, all of Michael’s enemies go down in a collage of scenes—including Michael’s brother, Fredo. In Godfather III (the worst of the three films that had absolutely nothing to do with the original novel) there was this opera which was badly in need of a singing fat lady. There’s a climactic “event” in The Family Corleone, too: a parade in which Vito and his family are walking with the mayor of New York (unlikely). During the parade, Irish thugs employed by Vito’s arch-enemy Giuseppe “Joe” Mariposa attempt to assassinate him. Yawn. Saw that one coming.
I’m sorry, but the only reason I didn’t stop reading after the “first fifty” (as is my custom when I find a book unreadable) was that I spent $14.99 for this book on Kindle (price set by the publisher). That and the fact that, never having forgotten the impression made on me by Puzo’s original and the motion picture that followed, I kept reading and hoping that maybe, just maybe, I would hear the sizzle again. All I got was another steak that wasn’t anywhere as good as I remember the first one to have been.
It’s not Falco’s fault, no more than it was the fault of Mark Winegardner’s or even of Puzo’s (who wrote The Sicilian). Since The Godfather raised the curtain on the mob of the forties and fifties, we have had a whole new crop of bad guys presented to us, like the wise guys in Goodfellas (based on Wiseguy, by Nicholas Pileggi) and of course the true sequel to The Godfather, The Sopranos. We are much more savvy about the mob following the conviction of John Gotti, the mystique is gone, and the mustache Pete’s just don’t cut it any more.
The Family Corleone is well written. The problem is, I just couldn’t get myself to care.
Copyright Isaac Morris 2012