Monday, May 14, 2012

Revisiting The Godfather, The Novel

By Stephen J. Gertz

There are strong similarities between Michael Corleone and Alexander Portnoy. Neither of them, for instance, wishes to enter his father's line of work. Each of them falls for a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant girl. Of course, there are some differences, too. When Alexander Portnoy's father is frustrated, he gets constipated; when Michael Corleone's father is frustrated, he gets someone killed.

'The Godfather' is the coming of age of Michael Corleone in a world that Philip Roth never knew. It is the world of the Mafia in America, and the dialogue and the logic of  'The Godfather' ring true enough to raise the suspicion that, at least by hearsay, Mario Puzo knows his subject well (Opening to NY Times review, April 27, 1969).

I can't remember if I read The Godfather when it was originally published, in 1969. It seems like I did. The book spent over a year on the New York Times Best Seller list; it was #1 the week of September 21, 1969. It was still #1 on November 30th, and then just sat around there lording it over everything else for a total of 67 weeks on the list.  But I was eighteen years old and avoided books on the Best Seller list on principle: I dodged anything popular; it offended my sense of hip. By 1975, the book had sold 12,000,000 copies, 12,00,000 reasons not to read it.

Still, when I recently handled a first edition, first printing copy and routinely thumbed through the book I felt  as if  I'd previously read it, even though there were passages that seemed alien to my memory.

Of course, I've seen the movie, which came out three years later, and the movie, Part II (1974); I saw them immediately upon  release. How many times since, I've lost count; at least twenty, easily. I was primed to plow through the  entire novel: let's just say that the book made me an offer I couldn't refuse. It was not a virginal experience.

"Sonny Corleone was tall for a first-generation American
of Italian parentage, almost six feet, and his crop of bushy,
curly hair made him look even taller. His face was that of
a gross cupid, the features even but the bow-shaped lips
thickly sensual, the dimpled cleft chin in some curious way
obscene. He was built as powerfully as a bull..."

Since the movies' release it is impossible to  read The Godfather without seeing and hearing Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, et al, while doing so. Seeing the movie in your head while you read is unavoidable. And it is equally difficult to not compare the movie with the book while reading it. The reality is that it is the movie  and not the book that has become deeply embedded into American consciousness and culture to take its place within the American mythos.

While reading, what becomes immediately apparent is that Francis Coppola, working with Puzo, did a brilliant job in adapting the novel to film. Remember Nino Valenti, the mandolin-playing singer, lifelong pal of Johnny Fontaine, and Don Vito's other godson? Ripped from the pages of the book and thrown into the trash can never to be seen again. Lucy Mancini, the maid of honor at Connie's wedding and the object of Sonny's lust, lingers in the novel long after Sonny is gunned down.

Corleone Family gunsels Al Neri and Rocco Lampone are given much more attention in the book than in the first movie. Puzo devotes an entire chapter to Neri's bio; who knew he was originally a cop before he became "Michael's Luca Brasi," a physical and behavioral comparison absent in the films?  Oh, and about Luca: his back-story you don't want to know; an infamy not for the faint of heart. Huge chunks of background material were cut out  for The Godfather Part I; some reappeared in Part II. Lucy Mancini - who, in the novel, winds up engaged to a Jewish doctor, an abortionist in Vegas - doesn't show up again in the movie trilogy until Part III, sans doc but with grown child, Vincent, son of Sonny and not conceived by Puzo.

"He was short and burly, not handsome but with the same
cupid head of the family, the curly helmet of hair over the
round face and sensual bow-shaped lips. Only, in Fred,
these lips were not sensual but granitelike."

All this improved the narrative  momentum of the first film. It is often frustrating to read the book; you become impatient for what you know is coming soon if only Puzo would get out of the way. Al Neri's story is presented as he's preparing to assassinate Don Barzini at the climax to the story. Knowing the film's inexorable, driving pace the Neri digression, however interesting, is annoying, and Puzo spends far too much time on Johnny and Nino's adventures in Hollywood. Did you know that after starring in Woltz International Pictures' anonymous stand-in for From Here To Eternity, the movie that brought Sinatra back from career death, Johnny became a successful independent producer?  With Johnny's help Nino became a big movie star but he, being a simple, good ol' paesano, hated Hollywood success and drank himself to death. Interesting, sure, but ultimately, who cares? The movie has spoiled us for the novel.

It's easy to see why the book became such a phenomenon. In the Sixties, the veil over organized crime had begun to lift. Genovese Family member Joe Valachi had captured the nation's imagination with his revelations before Congress in 1963. The history, structure, and personnel of the American Mafia, La Cosa Nostra (in the book we learn that Don Corleone coined the phrase), became common knowledge. The Godfather integrated truth, rumor, and fiction into a compelling tale and provided rich. complex characters whose motivations were made clear, people who we, despite their behavior, came to feel deep affection and sympathy toward.

"He did not have the heavy, Cupid-shaped face of the
other children, and his jet-black hair was straight rather
than curly. His skin was a clear olive-brown that would
 have been called beautiful in a girl. He was handsome
in a delicate way. Indeed there was a time when the Don
 had worried about his son's masculinity."

Of paramount importance to its success, however, was that this was the first gangster novel as family drama, with appeal to women as well as men of all ages. The Godfather has become one of the great stories in modern American mythology.

Puzo wrote a terrific story. Literary exposition of character provides details and insight not found in the movies though as a filmmaker Coppola was able to capture much of it with a gesture, a look, without a word.

What is left wanting is Coppola's vision of the story as an Italian-American Greek tragedy told with bravura operatic theatricality without sacrificing naturalism, a delicate balance.

This is best illustrated by the story's penultimate sequence, when Michael "settles" family business. In the novel, the multiple assassinations occur sequentially, with background digressions. The baptismal scene occurs the day before. It was Coppola's genius to have the baptism and executions occur simultaneously, the rituals and chanting in Latin and Michael's acceptance of Jesus and rejection of Satan inter-cut with the murders providing an acutely emotive, sharply ironic contrast not present in the novel, and brings the  religious sensibility of the final scene in the novel to the fore.

"She was too thin, too fair, her face was too sharply
intelligent for a woman, her manner too free for a maiden.
Her name, too, was outlandish to their ears;
she called herself Kay Adams."

At novel's end, Kay leaves  Michael after she learns that he lied to her about ordering Carlo's death. But when she discovers, from Tom Hagen, the rationale, and reasonable, in this world, justification for Michael's criminal acts she returns to him and converts to Catholicism, accompanying Mama Corleone to Mass every morning to pray for the soul of Michael Corleone, the man she loves. It's a satisfying end to the book.

But Coppola captured the drama better. By cutting that sequence and ending with Kay witnessing the fealty of the Family soldier-retainers, hearing Michael addressed at Don Corleone, and seeing his office door and life closed to her she knows everything she - and we - need to know. Michael is guilty as sin and a malignant shadow has fallen over their marriage. Though  Michael made his bones with Solozzo's murder, baby Anthony's entry into religious faith was Michael's,  too, his baptism by fire as Don Corleone and grand entrance into the church of the Mafia and damnation.

• • •

I read the book during lunch breaks and stolen moments at work. I could not stay away from it until I  finished it three days later; it is a compulsively great read,  despite  poor comparison with the film. In the evenings, I watched the movie. It was strange to read and watch the story in parallel as dueling media. In the end what became clear is that Coppola, more so than Puzo, understood that the novel was, first and foremost, the epic saga of a 20th century American family, and a parable about life in the U.S., the nation's values and ideals corroded by its post-WWII superpower status.

"Tom Hagen was thirty-five years old, a tall
crew-cut man, very slender, very ordinary-looking."

Overwhelmed by Copploa's trilogy (Parts I & II are considered to be in the top ten greatest movies ever made), the book is now merely a companion-guide to its cinematic incarnations, and  nobody will ever read the book without having seen the movie first.  There are no virgins to The Godfather, the novel. Yet I strongly recommend that readers take a look at it. It is, arguably, the best mainstream outlaw-romantic modern novel by an American writer, a genre that has a particular resonance in the American psyche. Though Puzo's prose is often poor his storytelling is always rich.

"Even as a young man, Vito Corleone became known
as a 'man of reasonableness.' He never uttered a threat.
He always used logic that proved to be irresistible. He
always made certain that the other fellow got his share
of profit. Nobody lost

The book has certainly lasted longer in the popular American consciousness than  Portnoy's Complaint, also published in 1969; the two were the big American novels of the year. Americans love men of action. When Alexander Portnoy gets frustrated, he masturbates. When Michael Corleone gets frustrated, he waits, and then he kills. But anybody can jerk-off. Few, however, have the power and will to live by their own rules and moral code. We admire and sympathize with Michael even as we understand that he's going to Hell, hand-basket unnecessary. The Greek tragedy that is The Godfather trumps the Jewish neurosis of Portnoy. The Corleones have become one of the great American Families, nice folks to visit but you don't want to live with them.

 As of this date, it is estimated that The Godfather, the book, has sold approximately 21 million copies.

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