Art imitating life imitating art, mob-style.
It was business." These are among the last words of Corleone caporegime Salvatore Tessio, condemned to death for betrayal at the close of Mario Puzo's 1969 Mafia bestseller, The Godfather . This occasion and Tessio's words are repeated at the beginning of Mark Winegardner's The Godfather Returns (Random House, $27), a new novel no one would mistake for anything other than an inexpert example of business, or more specifically, product merchandising.
It's not the first example, of course. Mario Puzo himself was a prolific exploiter of his own creation, as a screenwriter adapting and then extending it through three movies over a 20-year period as well as producing several other mob-themed screenplays and books before his death in July 1999. Moreover, Puzo gave Random House permission to make free with the book's rights after his death. And so they have, in 2002 tapping Winegardner—a professor at Florida State and apparently a writer whose career mirrors Puzo's in 1969—to write a sequel to the original. No doubt the movie rights have already been purchased, a screenplay is in progress, studios being approached, action figures contemplated, etc.
There's an inevitability about the enterprise. The Godfather cannot lay claim to being the primal organized crime fiction, the progenitor for all mob prose that followed, but its name, font (downloadable from the web), marionette icon, the black and red design, et al., embody a powerful product brand. It's responsible for imbuing speech with new meaning; words such as godfather, family business, unrefusable offers, and protection have acquired ominous implications. And it sowed Italian words, like capo , consigliere , and omerta , into English parlance. Furthermore, the characters therein, and especially their cinematic manifestations, have become iconic. No better example of this brand's impact is Luciano Leggio—a real-life Mafia mobster, known for his brutal acts and physiognomy, from the Sicilian town of Corleone no less—who during his Palermo court appearances in the
The Godfather Returns is unlikely to attract imitation, as it is mere simulacrum itself. First, its most colorful characters are simply lifted from the books or movies that came before. Second, characters are too obviously modeled after real people—interest in the plot is distracted by the parlor game of identifying the real-life sources of the people populating the story. Third, the novel's plot, perhaps by necessity, has been inserted into the existing outline of The Godfather and movies rather than extending into later decades. Probably as a consequence of the broad scope of the originals, which span a period from 1910 to 1980, tracing the life and death of two Dons as well as a large cast of minor players, Winegardner has chosen instead to develop gaps in the story in the late '50s and early '60s. Starting with the timeline that prefaces the book, however, there's a definite sense that Winegardner is seeking literary elbow room, angling for space amid his predecessors.
Sal Tessio's last hours are employed to introduce Winegardner's one truly original new protagonist, Fausto "Ace" Geraci, an underboss in Tessio's regime, called upon by Michael Corleone to pull the trigger at Tessio's assassination. Commencing from an ill-chosen crack about Michael's older brother Fredo, Geraci develops into Michael's nemesis and yet one more foe to be overcome in Michael's pursuit of taking the family businesses to legitimacy. More significantly, Geraci is the novel's only binding conceit, as it otherwise proceeds like a cast call of old and new faces, thinly connected to any unifying plot. Most annoying are the JFK/RFK paper dolls James and Daniel Shea, who not only are president and attorney general, but whose deaths are provided mafia-related explanation. In the end, Godfather Returns is less a coherent narrative in its own right than a montage of prose flourishes, needless literary grout to a story previously laid down.