A Novel I Couldn’t Refuse: Mario Puzo’s The Godfather (a book review)

Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather opens with a quote from Balzac: “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.” For those of you not well versed in your 19th century French writers, Honore de Balzac is considered by many to be the father of French Realism, Balzac is, perhaps, best known for his novel Le Père Goriot (1835), a novel translated as Father Goriot for us non-French reading commoners. Balzac also authored a series of short stories he gathered into a giant collection he called the Human Comedy. (Well, he called it  La Comédie Humaine but I’m writing American here so cut me some slack.)

Labeling Balzac a Realist, in many ways, reduces his contribution to world literature. Fellow countryman Marie-Henri Beyle (who wrote under the pen name Stendahl) once described the goal of Realism, and I paraphrase and translate, to provide a mirror walking down the road. Both Balzac’s novel and Stendahl’s great novel The Red and the Black are far more than simply reflections of society, but the common idea was that each writer (and, in fact, the job of the writer) was to accurately reflect, to offer a mimetic sense if you will, of the world in which they exist.

Doing so and doing well, though, involves delving into the human psyche, probing culture, and carefully crafting the images we see in that mirror. In many ways, calling Balzac and Stendahl Realists limits their contributions to both the literary world and our understanding of that larger human narrative. Like so many great writers, their works get categorized so they fit neatly in a variety of anthologies and “eras” and readers often ignore their other qualities.

In many ways, Puzo’s novel suffers the the same reductive fate. I will willingly admit that I’m a fan of the film. The Godfather (1972) and Godfather Part II (1972) are cinematic masterpieces that epitomize 1970’s American film making. Director Francis Ford Coppola rejected the pretty beach blanket boys and girls of the ’60s and took us into the dirty, gritty city streets with that cinema verite that seems a direct descendant of Balzac and Stendahl.

I’ll also admit that I’ve had a copy of Puzo’s novel on my book shelf for so long that when I cracked the spine and started reading the other day whole chapters fell out onto the floor. I have never read the novel, partly I’ll admit, because I’ve simply assumed Puzo had given us a crime novel (with all the formulaic connotations such a tag implies) that would be superficial, shallow, and filled with stereotypical, flat characters.

Like Goodfellas only on the printed page. (Sorry. That’s a cheap shot but I stand by it. I love Ray Liotta, but that stare has always been just a tad melodramatic for me. I’m not sure if his new tequila commercial is parody or serious?)

Fortunately, I’m man enough to admit I’m wrong. (Mostly because I have so much practice. At being wrong not being a man. No practice necessary for that, of course.)

Certainly, the novel has its fair share of stock characters and stereotypes. Too many of the Italian men have slicked back pompadours and Puzo writes about sex like a man who read too many letters to Playboy, but we also get a deep and insightful examination of one family’s desire to fight for, not against, it’s share of the American dream. In many ways, Puzo gives us a novel that is, at times, incredibly critical of how power is distributed and deeply intertwined with economic prosperity. Don Corleone is simply modeling corporate America on a smaller, and at times more violent, scale.

The Corleone’s recognize the disparity of power and economic possibilities early in the novel and spend years working within the system while alternately gaming the system as a means to gain power so that their “children would grow in a different world. They would be doctors, artists, scientists. Governors. Presidents. Anything at all. He would see to it that they joined the general family of humanity.”

Giving his family this opportunity requires that the Don, and his son Michael, make decisions outside the accepted norms of the social system because, quite simply, the system within which they exist restricts access to power for immigrants and the poor. We see, early in the novel, the oppressive conditions in which immigrant and poor families exist. In many ways, then, Puzo’s novel both criticizes and glorifies American society.

But what makes Puzo’s novel so interesting, it seems to me, is his emphasis and focus on Italian-Americans. The willingness to trumpet the values and humanity of “hyphenated” Americans in 1969 reflects a burgeoning civil rights movement that is starting to find legs in American culture while at the same time showing us, holding that mirror up on the path to prosperity, the seedy underbelly of the sacrifices necessary to achieve power in America. The men and women in this novel are definitively American and they believe in America, but they also have refused to shy away from or reject their deeply embedded cultural heritage. America is not about assimilation for Puzo: the Corleone’s spend most of the novel living in a small compound that keeps the outside world at bay.

What America provides, though, for those men willing to take it, Puzo seems to argue, is an opportunity to gain access to the halls of power if you are smart enough to bring men together and appeal to their reason. (Or, at the least, make an offer they can’t refuse.) But America is also about remembering your past and holding on to those ancestral, deeply embedded cultural identities that provide the narrative of who we were, Puzo seems to say. Bringing those two things together might not be pretty, but the successes and failures are all, the novel seems to imply, part of the growth, part of the culture, and part of America.

Balzac, I think, would have been proud.

 

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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