Book Review: The Family Corleone
by Ed Falco
Grand Central Publishing, 2012
From a literary standpoint, when it comes to writing a pastiche of Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel The Godfather, you can’t go wrong. The original book is so laughably god-awful that all any half-way competent author needs to do in order to equal or surpass it is get out of bed in the morning. Mark Winegardner did it with The Godfather Returns in 2004 and The Godfather’s Revenge in 2006, and Ed Falco does it easily with his “prequel” to Puzo’s book, The Family Corleone, in bookstores now.
But from what we’ll have to call a cultural standpoint, when it comes to using characters from Francis Ford Coppola’s beguiling and hugely beloved 1972 movie The Godfather, the reverse holds true: you almost can’t help but go wrong – at least from the fans’ point of view. The movie (and its two sequels) has been watched repeatedly and obsessively by an entire generation of people all over the world, people who’ve memorized every line of dialogue and know the characters as intimately as they know members of their own families. It’s tough writing a book when your briefest prepositional phrase might be called naked heresy by thousands of screaming faithful. Winegardner’s books were actually quite good, but you’d never know that from the barely-coherent outrage they inspired when they appeared. Falco’s book is even better – whether or not he’s burned in effigy remains to be seen.
Such is the popular cache of the movies that most people picking up Falco’s novel won’t need to be told who the characters are; there’s stern, cerebral crime boss Vito Corleone masquerading as a businessman, there are his staunch lieutenants Clemenza and Tessio, there are his children – hot-headed eldest son Sonny, adopted Irish son Tom Hagen, smart, reserved second son Michael, and the younger kids Fredo and Connie – and there’s Luca Brasi, the enormous but dimwitted muscle Don Corleone employs when he wants to make people ‘offers they can’t refuse.’ Thanks to a string of tightly-controlled and extremely memorable performances by the actors in all three Godfather movies, people feel possessive of these figures. A Godfather pastiche-writer can no more have them step out of character than he could have Mr. Spock start telling jokes on the bridge of the Enterprise.
There are plenty of blank spots in the over-all narrative of Puzo’s story – there’s plenty of room, in other words, for pastiche (Grand Central Publishing is sticking with the claim that this book isn’t a pastiche at all, that – control your mirth, now – its actually adapted from a long-withheld original screenplay by Puzo himself; if such a screenplay exists – no doubt stored in Dr. Watson’s battered tin dispatch box - I’m the Czar of All the Russias).
Falco sets his story a decade before The Godfather, in the 1930s, when Vito Corleone is still a somewhat provincial figure in a New York crime world ruled by older, more established families. Vito’s teenage son Sonny, unbeknownst to him, has been hijacking liquor shipments belonging to one of the most powerful of those more-established mobsters, “Jumpin” Joe Mariposa and selling the stolen hooch to a vicious, psychopathic small-time hood named Luca Brasi. In the first half of the novel, titled “Mostro,” the focus is on the tensions cause by Brasi’s loose cannon status, and his ongoing war with the pathetically disorganized Irish gangsters who still cling to the peripheries of local crime (when one character says of the Irish “The whole bunch of them are lunatics,” this critic opened his mouth to object, and then closed it again without a sound). Falco does a sure-handed job at creating his own version of the younger Brasi, a ‘monster’ so indifferent to violence that he unnerves his own men:
“If Tomasino or Giuseppe or anybody comes after us, I’ll kill ‘em. Just like I’m gonna kill Willie O’Rourke. Right?”
“Boss,” Hooks said, and he looked away, out the window at the rain of leaves falling on the hood of the car, “you can’t kill everybody.”
“Sure I can,” Luca said …
The narrative cuts often enough to the various goings-on in the Corleone family (both the blood-relation kind of family and the gun-toting kind of family), but even so, this emphasis on Luca Brasi is both well-done and pretty confusing – just looking at the words on the page, the character in no way justifies the spotlight; it only makes sense if you’ve seen the movie and been struck – as everybody is – by the weirdly halting and indelible job Lenny Montana does playing Brasi. Falco has a good time fleshing out the character, but it’s a strangely pointless performance, since readers know that something is going to have to happen to this smart, charismatic version of Brasi in order for him to be the hulking simpleton we know and love from the movie. Thus, when the something finally does happen, it feels both fore-ordained and cheap. In Casa Nostra terms, poor Luca was set up to take a fall.
The book’s second half, “Guerra,” centers on the war that erupts between Mariposa’s outfit and the Corleones for control of New York’s famous “Five Families.” Mariposa has the backing of no less than Al Capone, who sends men to New York to kill Vito. Luca Brasi deals with them in a scene of vivid gore that will please the most troubling sub-strata of Godfather fans, the ones who view all this crapola about “honor” and “respect” and guns and guns and guns not as a cautionary tale about the dark side of the American dream (this was the line of pure stronzate Puzo was spouting before he died) but rather as a dead-serious instruction manual on how to live their lives. Naturally, Luca then sends various body parts back to Capone by parcel post, with a polite note: “Dear Mr. Capone, now you know how I deal with my enemies. Why does a Neapolitan interfere in a quarrel between two Sicilians?”
It’s in this second half of the book that Falco does his best work. He warms to his material, giving us skilled distillations of these famous characters:
Vito was forty-one, but there were times, like this one, when he still looked to Clemenza like the same kid he’d met for the first time some fifteen years earlier. He had the same muscular head and arms, and the same dark eyes that seemed to take in everything. With Vito, what somebody did and what the doing meant, the bigger design behind an act that might look unimportant to someone else … he saw all that. He could be trusted to see all that.
And he has a genuine flair for describing the curious storm-shapes that passion can trace in the thoughts of conflicted characters. He does this expertly time and again when he’s dealing with poor Luca Brasi in the book’s first half, and the second half’s main star, temperamental young Sonny, also benefits from this skill, as in the aftermath of the scene where he commits a particularly heinous murder:
He didn’t know why he was driving to the river, but he didn’t resist. It was like something was pulling him there – and he didn’t begin to straighten himself out, to make his heart slow down and to get his thoughts straight, until he saw the water and parked close to it and waited there in the dark of his car looking out over the river to the lights of the city, with those sounds in his head beginning to fade, the buzzing and Eileen’s scream and that thump that he both heard and could still feel in his bones and against his heart.
Ultimately, it’s the character-work that saves The Family Corleone from its own, shall we say, ethnic excesses. Far more often than is good for his book (which is, after all, for sale everywhere in the Western world, not just in Little Italy), Falco indulges in simplifications we were all supposed to leave behind us at Ellis Island. When Sonny fumes about how “Pop always held up Tom to him – Tom’s doing this, Tom’s doing that,” he reminds himself – and us – that “there was never any question about loyalty or love. Sonny was Vito’s oldest son. If you were an Italian, that was all that needed to be said.” And if you’re Lithuanian? Or French? Or, Jaysus Mary and Joseph, Irish? In point of fact, only one eldest son in the book is actually murdered by his father – and that father isn’t Irish.
It’s this kind of lapse on our author’s part that gives rise to exchanges like this one (it’ll be familiar to Italian-American readers as “the Black Hole of Conversation” and has been known to last as long as two solid days):
“Give me your heater”
“What do you want my gun for?”
“Never mind, just give it to me.”
“You got your own gun.”
“Just give me your fuckin’ heater.”
“I still don’t know what the hell you need my gun for.”
Likewise we get all the compulsory nods at things fans will expect – even as a little boy, Fredo is already craven and snivelling; we get a scene that playfully foreshadows Tessio’s treachery; we get, by imperial edict, a mention of canolli. And we get Vito giving sage advice to his son: “Don’t write if you can talk, don’t talk if you can nod your head, don’t nod your head if you don’t have to” (ironically, this is a mangled version of a dictum that originated in the seething wards of South Boston among those crazy Irish: “Don’t write if you can speak, don’t speak if you can nod, and don’t fookin’ nod” – perhaps it got garbled in translation?).
And running underneath all of this, hampering even so good and effective a novel as this one surprisingly turns out to be, is the fact that Godfather writers almost inevitably fall prey to the same kind of ambivalence that snares so many fans: they lose sight of the fact that Vito Corleone isn’t a good guy – he’s just the best of the bad guys. He isn’t a mobster half the time and a legitimate businessman the other half – he’s a mobster all the time (that shop owners are physically coerced into selling the Corleone brand of olive oil gets only one allusion in The Family Corleone). The fact that Vito doesn’t want to face that is dramatized in a vivid scene where Sonny confronts him in an alley with the reality “everybody knows.” The fact that Falco is latest in a long line of writers who don’t want to face it either is demonstrated by the fact that the scene fritters away without effect.
But for good or ill (and it’s all ill, in case you were wondering), that ambivalence is woven into the DNA of the various “Godfather” incarnations. Even so, if Falco is thinking of writing further novels with these characters – something any reader of The Family Corleone will earnestly hope he is – he should resist getting comfortable thinking about these characters. They don’t have to be noble to be compelling. They are compelling; they must never be noble.